Varadkar to discuss possibility of Northern Ireland-only backstop with Johnson

Taoiseach warns he does not expect any Brexit breakthroughs in Dublin meeting

Gerry Harrahill, Revenue Commissioner and Director of Customs showing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar newly built inspection facilities at Dublin Port in advance of Brexit. Photograph: Alan Betson

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that he will discuss the possibility of a Northern Ireland-only backstop with the British prime minister Boris Johnson when he comes to Dublin for the first meeting between the two on Monday morning.

While keen to emphasise that negotiations on Brexit can only take place between the UK Government and the EU taskforce, Mr Varadkar told journalists at Dublin Port on Sunday that he was willing to see if there was common ground on a "Northern Ireland specific" solution, something which has been raised by Mr Johnson in recent days.

“The negotiations as you know happen between the EU taskforce, including Ireland, on the one side and the UK government on the other,” Mr Varadkar said. “But that’s not to say that for the past two years we haven’t been able to have discussions, share ideas and compare notes and that’s what will happen tomorrow.

"So I don't know if we can find some common ground around a Northern Ireland-unique solution but we've always said as a Government that that's something that we're open to. Of course we'd like the United Kingdom as a whole to stay in the customs union or a single customs territory but that's their decision, not ours. So it'll be interesting to see if we can explore tomorrow if we could find some common ground around a Northern Ireland-specific solution but I'll have to judge that tomorrow," he said.


The backstop is part of the Brexit withdrawl agreement negotiated by former British prime minister Theresa May with the EU. It is designed as an insurance policy to ensure an open border remains in Ireland in the event there is no trade agreement reached during the transition period. (Read Simon Carswell's explainer on the backstop here) .

Asked about a single agricultural zone, Mr Varadkar that that it would not be enough to avoid checks on goods. “It’s not enough on its own . . . I think we’d need a single Irish economic zone, or whatever you’d want to call it, to cover more than agriculture and food.”

Mr Varadkar also noted that “Prime Minister Johnson doesn’t have a majority.

“So I’ll be asking him how he can convince us, Ireland and the EU, that he is actually capable or has the votes to get a deal through,” he said.

Mr Varadkar also said that the Government does not want to see any checks near the border but will do whatever is needed to protect Ireland’s place in the EU single market.

“We will be ready to do what we need to do to protect the single market on the first of November if a no-deal Brexit occurs,” Mr Varadkar said during a visit to Dublin Port this afternoon to see no-deal preparations at the facility. “The single market is a market of 450 million people and our economy and our jobs and our livelihoods depend on it.”

Mr Varadkar said that ports such as Dublin and Rosslare would be ready for a no-deal on November 1st.

"If we do need to have checks near the Border, that's going to be a bit different. We're working out the details of that with the European Commission and until they're worked out and agreed, I'm not in a position to inform people. But once we know what they are and they are agreed, we'll inform business and the public," he said.

Asked why he would not supply further information to people about the potential Border checks now, Mr Varadkar said: “The last thing I want to do now is give information that changes. And I totally understand - particularly when it comes to business operating around the border - they want to know what’s going to happen. And I want to tell them. And I’ll tell them as soon as I know and as soon as we’ve nailed that down with the European Commission.”

Asked if checks near the Border undermined the Belfast Agreement, Mr Varadkar said: "Nobody in the Irish Government wants there to be checks near the Border between North and South - that's why we designed the backstop to avoid that. And that's why the backstop is the solution.

He stressed that the Government was open to alternatives, “but we haven’t seen those come forward.”

Mr Varadkar said that he will discuss the possibility of a Northern Ireland-only backstop as a solution to the Brexit stalemate with Mr Johnson, but disputed that there was any significant progress being made in talks between the EU and the UK, as Mr Johnson and several of his ministers have claimed.

“If that’s what being said that’s a very optimistic assessment of where we stand,” he said. “I don’t think it would be shared by any of the other 27 member governments.”

"I do though look forward to meeting Prime Minister Johnson tomorrow, I don't expect any big breakthroughs but I do think it's an opportunity for us to establish a relationship , to see what common ground might exist because I do believe that both governments, and all governments, do want there to be a deal and also to talk about Northern Ireland where we've a shared desire to have the institutions up and running again."

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times