Strain over Brexit caused Taoiseach to refer to troops at Border, say aides

Varadkar insists it is the British who have the responsibility to compromise over backstop

Speaking with Bloomberg TV, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that it incumbent upon the British government to come up with a solution after the current Brexit agreement was rejected by Westminster. Video: Bloomberg TV

 

Frustration with the British government’s reneging on commitment to the backstop led the Taoiseach to yesterday raise the prospect of the return of troops to the Border, aides say.

It comes amid heightened tensions between the Irish and British governments and the EU over Brexit.

The strain showed little sign of abating last night as British ministers sought to increase the pressure on Dublin to water down the backstop, which guarantees no hard border on the island of Ireland. Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said the EU “needs to be listening very carefully” to MP’s concerns.

But Dublin firmly rebuffed suggestions it should accept an end date on the backstop, and the Taoiseach insisted that it was the British who had the responsibility to compromise.

“We’re the ones already giving,” Mr Varadkar said. “The UK wanted a review clause in the backstop and we agreed to that, the UK wanted a UK-wide element, so why is it the country that is being victimised is the one that’s always asked to give?”

‘Customs posts’

The controversy was sparked yesterday when Mr Varadkar, speaking in Davos, said in a worst-case, no-deal scenario, a hard border “would involve customs posts, it would involve people in uniform and it may involve the need, for example, for cameras, physical infrastructure, possibly a police presence or army presence to back it up”.

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A Government spokesman later clarified the Taoiseach “was asked to describe a hard border, and gave a description of what it used to look like, and the risk of what it could look like in the worst-case scenario.”

The spokesman said Mr Varadkar was “not referring to personnel and the Irish Government had no plans to deploy infrastructure or personnel at the Border.

Sources close to the Taoiseach admitted his attitude was “more bullish” and put it down to “frustration at the British”. Mr Varadkar repeatedly called on the British government and the British parliament to move their position on the backstop.

In Dublin senior Government sources expressed surprise at the Taoiseach’s comment but echoed the feeling of frustration that Ireland was being pressured to give ground on the backstop to help Mrs May, who had sought a UK-wide backstop.

Hard border

But other people in Dublin, inside and outside Government, expressed surprise at Mr Varadkar’s remarks. Some noted they seemed at odds with the Taoiseach’s and Tánaiste’s declarations earlier this week that there could be no return to a hard border.

In a tweet the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said that Mr Varadkar was “contradicting everything that we have been told [by him and the Tánaiste] about preparations. It is hard to see how this helps our case.” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Taoiseach’s comments were “reckless and irresponsible”.

British cabinet ministers Philip Hammond and Ms Leadsom on Friday urged the European Union to accept changes to the backstop in order to win approval for the Brexit deal in the House of Commons. MPs will vote next Tuesday on how to proceed following last week’s overwhelming rejection of the deal.

Main obstacle

Theresa May’s government is expected to back an amendment tabled by leading Conservative backbenchers demanding that the backstop should be replaced “with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”. Ms Leadsom said the backstop was the main obstacle preventing hardline Brexiteers and the DUP from supporting the Brexit deal.

“The EU need to be listening very carefully to that. They are slightly in denial saying that that is not the issue. It very much is the issue. So I am hoping the European commissioners will look very closely at the backstop and think of a way through this, because the legal default is that we leave the EU on March 29th without a deal unless we can agree a deal,” she told the BBC.

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