Taoiseach warns EU that hard border would threaten return to violence

Irish Government ‘not exaggerating’ concerns about consequences of no deal in NI

British prime minister Theresa May has signalled she would consider extending a so-called transition period “for a matter of months” after Britain leaves the European Union. Video: EU Council

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has given European leaders his clearest warning yet that a return to a hard border would threaten a return to violence in Northern Ireland.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on Thursday, Mr Varadkar said he wanted to make clear that the Irish Government was not exaggerating its concerns about the consequences of a no deal in Northern Ireland and the imposition of a new border.

He described using Wednesday’s Irish Times, which carried a story on the bombing of a customs post in 1972 and which Mr Varadkar showed to European leaders at that evening’s dinner, as “a useful prop to demonstrate to all the European leaders the extent to which the concerns about the re-emergence of a hard border and the possibility of a return to violence are very real”.

“I just wanted to make sure that there was no sense in the room that in any way anyone in the Irish Government was exaggerating the real risk of a return to violence in Ireland,” Mr Varadkar said.

Mr Varadkar also said the uncertainty over Brexit was one of the “major reasons” why the parties in the North had been unable to form an executive.

He said there was a realisation that the British Prime Minister Theresa May faced political obstacles at home.

‘Acknowledgement’

“There is absolutely an acknowledgement across the European Union – we’re all politicians, we do understand that Prime Minister May has to get a deal that she can get through Westminster.

“And we know how divided British politics is at the moment, not just the Government, and the Government party but also parliament itself. So we’re very aware of the enormous challenges that Prime Minister May faces in getting an agreement through Westminster and we want to help her with that,” he said.

“But we also have to bear in mind the other side of that equation – any agreement also has to be ratified by the European Parliament. And the European Parliament would not or should not approve a deal that undermines the Single Market and doesn’t give Ireland what we need in relation to the backstop,” Mr Varadkar said.

He reiterated that the backstop – a guarantee that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland no matter what the outcome of future trade talks between the EU and UK – could not be time-limited, but could be temporary.

“It would have to apply unless we have a new agreement in place,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said there would be “huge difficulties” with a UK-wide backstop but – making special arrangements for all of the UK, not just the North – but he said the EU would listen to any proposals that the UK brought forward.

‘Anyone’s guess’

Mr Varadkar said it was hard to say how long the negotiation of a future relationship treaty would take over the coming years.

“It’s anyone’s guess. It’s taken seven years to negotiate Ceta [EU - Canada trade agreement] . . . and we haven’t yet come to an agreement with South American countries, so these things can take a very long time.”

However, he acknowledged that both the UK and the EU were starting from the position where they shared rules and regulations at present.

“I’m sure with goodwill and best efforts and luck and the right politics, I’m sure it could be done in less than two years.”

He warned, though, that even after the future relationship treaty was agreed, it had to be ratified by all parliaments, and said this was another reason why the Irish Government needed to have the backstop in place “if things go wrong”.

Asked about the possibility of the talks extending into January, Mr Varadkar said: “I don’t know – I’ve always said that October is the deadline. Looks like we’re going to miss that deadline now.”

He said there will be another summit in December.

“I really hope we can have it done in November. If we don’t, then we can do it in December, and if that doesn’t happen, then there’s other events after that. I just don’t know, but I really think it’s in everyone’s interests that we come to an agreement as soon as possible.”

He said politicians were able to make last minute decisions but “businesses will start making decisions that bite”.

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