Brexit: Varadkar and May speak by phone amid efforts to resolve impasse

Taoiseach is playing a dangerous game, says DUP’s Nigel Dodds

Leader of British Labour Jeremy Corbyn trades insults with British prime minister Theresa May over the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Video: Parliament TV


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke to British prime minister Theresa May on Wednesday afternoon in an effort to break the impasse in the Brexit talks.

Ms May’s office confirmed the call. It comes as the Government insists it will not change the substance of what it says was agreed with the British government on Brexit earlier this week.

Mr Varadkar’s spokesman also confirmed the call. He said: “The Taoiseach and the prime minister, Theresa May spoke by telephone this afternoon. They took stock of developments since Monday.

“The Taoiseach reiterated the firm Irish position regarding the text as outlined by him on Monday. They agreed to speak again over the coming days.”

A statement from Downing Street following the call said Mr Varadkar and Ms May “agreed about the paramount importance of no hard border or physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

“The prime minister said how she recognised the significance of this issue to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland and how this remained a joint priority for both governments, and the EU, to resolve,” it said.

“The prime minister said we are working hard to find a specific solution to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland that respects the integrity of the UK, the European Union and the Belfast Agreement.

“She added that we are committed to moving together to achieve a positive result on this as well as restoring devolved Government to Northern Ireland. Both leaders looked forward to continuing relations as close neighbours and allies as the negotiations progress.”

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster also spoke to Ms May by telephone on Wednesday as efforts continue to rescue a deal on the Border arrangements after Brexit.

It is understood the two had a short conversation but she has no plans to travel to London for talks, a DUP spokesman said.

Downing Street described the call with Ms Foster as “constructive” but the DUP leader said there was more work to do before her party could endorse agreed language on the future of the Border.

Ms Foster, whose party props up Ms May’s government, on Monday effectively vetoed the text of a deal between Britain and the European Union on the future of Northern Ireland’s Border with the Republic, blocking UK progress to the next stage of Brexit talks.

Ms May’s hopes of securing a deal with Brussels received a further blow on Monday night when Conservative backbenchers joined the DUP in warning against any regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The DUP backbench rebellion on Monday scuppered Ms May plans to sign off an agreement with the European Commission to move on to the next phase of the Brexit talks after next week’s summit. It came after a dramatic day in Dublin and Brussels saw the Taoiseach effectively accuse the British government of reneging on an agreed text which saw the British guarantee no changes to the Border after Brexit by pledging to keep “regulatory alignment” between North and South.

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Wednesday’s phone call lasted around 15 minutes, but Ms Foster has no plans to travel to London for Brexit talks, the spokesman said. “There is still work to be done in London before she would go over,” he said.

Mr Varadkar told the Dáil on Wednesday it was the Government’s desire, wish and ambition to move on to phase two of the talks but if this was not possible before next week’s EU summit it could be done in the New Year.

DUP deputy leader and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said the Taoiseach’s statement about the Brexit talks continuing into the new year will send more worries through the business and commercial sectors of the Irish Republic than it will in Northern Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom.

“The longer there is delay in getting onto the second phase of the negotiations about a trade deal, the greater the prospect of a ‘no trade deal’ outcome. The Irish Republic would suffer far worse economically from no trade deal than the United Kingdom,” he said.

“The Republic of Ireland has £13.4 billion worth of sales to the United Kingdom. It is estimated that tens of thousands of jobs are at stake. Mr Varadkar may try to appear calm on the surface but he is playing a dangerous game - not with us but with his own economy,” he added.

Direct involvement

Ms Foster has told the Belfast Telegraph “lessons have been learned” from the breakdown of Brexit talks in Brussels and that her party now wants to be directly involved in future negotiations.

“If civil servants are working through particular scenarios and are looking at texts, I do think that when they’re talking about Northern Ireland it would be useful if we were directly involved,” she said.

“I’m not demanding that we have to be in the room for everything but there is a need for us to be directly involved.”

Mr Varadkar believes all parties in Ireland, North and South, should be listened to and also see the text of any agreement on a Brexit Border.

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist Party leader, Robin Swann said events since Monday, around an expected deal between the British government and the EU to move to the next phase of talks falling through at the last moment, was best described as “an unedifying shambles”.

Mr Swann said the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is “not up for debate in the Brexit negotiations” and the idea of a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is in his view totally unacceptable.

“The Ulster Unionist Party is very clear that we need to resolve the current situation. We need to reach a deal whereby the United Kingdom – and that means all of the United Kingdom – secures its departure from the EU on the best terms possible.

“Certainly Northern Ireland – which post Brexit will be the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU – wants to see Brexit negotiations proceed and succeed. Whilst we have no desire to have customs controls placed on our trade with Great Britain, we also recognise the need to ensure that the cross-Border trade arrangements with the Republic of Ireland are as seamless as possible.”

Dublin is said to be open to adding extra elements, such as on the strength of the UK as a political entity to the deal, as long as they do not undermine any elements already contained in the agreement. A spokesman for Mr Varadkar said the prospect of including additional elements to the deal to assuage the concerns of the DUP “doesn’t seem unreasonable”. It was stressed, however, that any additions must not undermine or dilute the substance and meaning of the deal agreed between officials in Dublin, Brussels and London on Monday morning.

Regulatory alignment

Last night Ms May promised that any “regulatory alignment” with the European Union would apply to the whole of the United Kingdom and not just Northern Ireland. A day after she walked away from a deal that would have allowed Brexit talks to move on to the next stage, the prime minister faced universal hostility from MPs to any deal that would treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.

The presumption of the discussion was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom

Brexit secretary David Davis told the House of Commons that it had never been his government’s intention to leave Northern Ireland bound by EU regulations while the rest of the UK plotted its own course.

“The presumption of the discussion was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom. I reiterate: alignment isn’t harmonisation, it isn’t having exactly the same rules. It is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection, all of that sort of thing as well. And that is what we are aiming for,” he said.

Mr Davis’s promise to avoid leaving Northern Ireland under a separate regulatory regime won praise from Remainers and Brexiteers alike. But it appeared to contradict Mr Varadkar’s understanding of the deal that was on offer on Monday.

Three scenarios

Mr Varadkar told the Dáil that the agreement envisaged three possible scenarios to ensure that the Border remained open, including an EU-UK free trade agreement that would allow free trade to continue between Britain and Ireland and a bespoke arrangement involving technology. If all else failed, there would be an ongoing regulatory alignment between the North and the South.

Ms Foster said the wording of the document came as a big shock to her party when they finally saw it late on Monday morning.

Text is important, words are important, they really do matter. So when we finally see text, that is when we make the final decision

“When we looked at the wording and had seen the import of all that, we knew we couldn’t sign up to anything that was in that text that would allow a border to develop in the Irish Sea,” she told RTÉ.

Mr Dodds blamed the Irish Government and the European Union for the delay in seeing the plans and said his party would work with Ms May in the hope that it can support a revised draft.

“Text is important, words are important, they really do matter. So when we finally see text, that is when we make the final decision. Clearly the text that we were shown very late yesterday morning did not translate what we had been told in general conversations into reality because there was far too much ambiguity and didn’t actually nail down the issues that need to be nailed down,” he said.

The prime minister is expected to return to Brussels later this week to resume the talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker which she broke off on Monday.

Senior EU diplomats said on Tuesday that if Britain cannot come up with a satisfactory offer by Friday, it could be too late to reach agreement among EU leaders in time for next week’s summit.