Varadkar tells Johnson new plans do not meet objectives of backstop

Taoiseach speaks to British prime minister on phone after alternative proposal outlined

Arlene Foster, DUP leader has said that her party will support the British government's new Brexit proposals which would see Northern Ireland stay in the European single market for goods, but leave the customs union - resulting in new customs checks.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told British prime minister Boris Johnson his latest Brexit plan does not meet the agreed objectives of the Northern Ireland backstop.

A Government statement said the Taoiseach and the Mr Johnson discussed the UK’s alternative Brexit proposals by phone on Wednesday evening, shortly before 6pm. Officials added that the call lasted 30 minutes.

Mr Varadkar said he would study them in further detail, and would consult the EU institutions.

Mr Johnson laid out his new plans in a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday. In the letter he proposed that the island of Ireland would become an all-island regulatory zone covering all goods, including agrifood, eliminating the need for regulatory checks on goods moving north and south of the Border.


Under the proposals the North would remain part of the UK customs area but the zone would only come into effect if the Northern Ireland executive agreed to it.

Mr Varadkar said he wanted to see a deal agreed and ratified, and would “continue to work in unity with our EU partners to this end”.

The leaders agreed they would speak again next week.

The statement said the Taoiseach expected to speak with European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker over the coming days.

‘Deeply political’

Speaking outside Government Buildings earlier on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar disputed the assertion by Mr Johnson that checks on goods moving between North and South was a “technical” matter.

He said: “I think it’s much more than a technical issue. It’s deeply political, it’s legal and the technical aspects are only a small part of it.”

Mr Varadkar said that if the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU, there will be checks on goods.

“But we have always argued that the best place to have those checks is at the ports and airports, and not along the 500km border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“We negotiated an agreement with prime minister [Theresa] May and the British government that enabled exactly that. And that’s our position and that’s what makes sense to us. And nobody in Northern Ireland wants checks on the Border between North and South. Nobody in the Republic wants checks between North and South.

“So why would any British government want to force that on Irish people North and South who don’t want it?”

Opposition parties in Leinster House dismissed Mr Johnson’s proposals.

Fianna Fáil spokeswoman on Brexit Lisa Chambers said a no-deal Brexit now “looms large over Ireland”.

“The proposals put forward by Boris Johnson are not realistic,” she said. She added that they “fail to fulfil the commitment given by the British government that there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland”.

She called for the Government to “level with the public where checks will take place in the event of a no-deal Brexit”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Johnson’s proposal was “a very dangerous, reckless proposition that plays fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement”.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the proposal was dangerous and could be ruinous for many businesses.

The DUP welcomed the proposals as ensuring Northern Ireland leaves the EU customs union and upholding the Good Friday Agreement.

A statement said: "The DUP has always indicated that the United Kingdom must leave the EU as one nation and in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK.

“This offer provides a basis for the EU to continue in a serious and sustained engagement with the UK government without risk to the internal market of the United Kingdom.

“It will require changes to the draft withdrawal treaty and we welcome the fact that all sides now recognise that requirement in order to secure agreement.

“These proposals would ensure that Northern Ireland would be out of the EU customs union and the single market as with the rest of the United Kingdom.

"These proposals, which are entirely consistent with the spirit and principles of the Belfast Agreement, demonstrate commitment to working with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland in a spirit of mutual co-operation whilst respecting the integrity of Northern Ireland's economic and constitutional position within the United Kingdom."


The British government’s proposals were rejected by each of the North’s remaining four main parties.

Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, said the party rejected the proposals which served “only to pave the way for a no deal in 29 days time”.

“The British government is offering an all-Ireland regulatory zone for all goods, yet makes these arrangements dependent on the consent of the assembly, effectively giving the DUP a veto,” she said.

“This is entirely unacceptable. Sinn Féin will never concede this.”

She said the proposals were “an act of political sabotage” which would be “catastrophic” for citizens and businesses.

“The EU must not accept these proposals as a legally operable alternative solution as it fails to meet the objectives of the Irish backstop.

“I share the strong rejection of local business and industry leaders of these proposals as unworkable, impractical and worse than a no deal,” she said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the proposals were “dead on arrival” and were unacceptable politically and economically.

“This is no compromise proposal,” he said. “We started this discussion on the basis that we don’t want any borders on this island. The British government’s counter offer is two borders by land and sea that are unacceptable to business, border communities and a majority of MLAs.

“The imposition of customs checks, with a need for physical infrastructure, will introduce heavy burdens on cross-Border businesses and supply chains that will seriously threaten profitability in key sectors. We have already rejected it. The business community has already rejected it.

“This is a proposal from a government that doesn’t understand the complexities of this island, but more to the point they don’t care,” he said.

Alliance party leader Naomi Long said the plans were “the worst of both worlds, as we’ve gone from having no new borders to having two”.

“The idea the assembly, which hasn’t sat for nearly three years, would be able to come back and take on the responsibility for an international treaty which is between heads of sovereign Governments, is a ludicrous proposition.

This, she said, would be “unworkable” and would place any attempts to restore the North’s Assembly “in complete jeopardy”.

“It is confirmation no deal has been the aim of the UK Government all along.”

The outgoing Ulster Unionist Party leader, Robin Swann, said the proposals would lock Northern Ireland into “continual political debates about Brexit and alignment with the rest of the UK or EU” which would create a “perpetual cycle of uncertainty.” – Additional reporting: PA

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times