Theresa May knows she cannot rely on DUP votes, Michéal Martin says

Fianna Fáil leader seeking ‘no election’ assurance from Leo Varadkar before Brexit deal struck

Anti-brexit protestors wave flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Anti-brexit protestors wave flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

 

British prime minister Theresa May has hinted that she realises that she may not be able to rely on the votes of the DUP for her Brexit proposals, Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin has told journalists in Brussels.

Mr Martin also said he was seeking an assurance from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that he would not call an election while the talks are ongoing.

He said that the DUP’s role in obstructing agreement was “not in best interests of Northern Ireland in terms of citizens, in terms of businesses, in terms of agri-food”.

He said pulling Northern Ireland out of the European market made no sense from an economic point of view. “Unionist politicians need to stand back from the larger constitutional issues that are not threatened.”

The backstop would provide the North with the “best of both world in terms of access to the EU single market and the British market”. It was an opportunity.

The Fianna Fáil leader, who is in Brussels to meet fellow leaders of the Liberal group ALDE, said he would thank them for their strong continuing support for Ireland’s position and would explain his pledge to Fine Gael not to bring down the Government during the Brexit process.

“I’m saying if the British parliament does not succeed in ratifying a deal, there would be a crisis at that point for our country. So, it’s vital that there would be a Government there to deal with that because there would be immediate damage done to our economy,” Mr Martin said, replying in Irish to questions from journalists.

“So, at the very least, I’m looking for agreement from Leo Varadkar not to have any election before that decision is taken by the British parliament.”

Mr Martin noted that the deadline for ratification by Westminster of any EU-UK Brexit deal is now January 21st, 2019. He said that discussions have begun between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on a possible extension of their confidence and supply arrangement which has now expired.

He warned that a no deal would be “catastrophic” for both sides and welcomed the idea of extending the transition from two years to three as an opportunity and space for the UK to think hard about its interests.

He believed that the talks problems are “not insurmountable”. Negotiators were now down to the last 10 per cent of issues.

Earlier, Tánaiste and Minister for Finance Simon Coveney said the backstop is very unlikely to be used.

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He said the Government needed to “hold its head” and be firm as Brexit negotiations continue.

“We need to show flexibility, but cannot compromise on the issue of a physical border,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

Mr Coveney commented on the reported proposal to extend the two-year Brexit transition period by one year to provide more time to develop a temporary customs arrangement between the EU and UK.

He said the aim was to give the British government the reassurance that the backstop to avoid a hard border is unlikely to ever be used because they will now have time to find a solution.

Mr Coveney said there should be a special Summit specifically on Brexit in mid-November.

“Time is moving on, we’re getting under time pressure,” he said.

He said it is very frustrating to hear debates from Westminster about the backstop when it had already been agreed.

“We don’t want the back stop to ever be used. It is insurance.”

He said that Ireland will never agree to a back stop with an end date. “This is where the process is stuck, but there is a way around this.”

The negotiations are very complex and difficult, Mr Coveney added.

Meanwhile, reports that the EU may be willing to offer the UK a year’s extension to its transition out of the EU to placate the opponents of the Irish backstop were being treated sceptically this morning by EU diplomats.

A senior diplomat said that any readiness to consider an extension to transition - the UK would have to ask for it - is not related to the backstop but to problems the UK has with designing an alternative to the Customs Union.

Crucially, they say, any extension would not remove the necessity for a binding backstop, but simply postpone its implementation to allow more time for negotiation of a comprehensive alternative.

Such an alternative would have to be, in the words of Mr Coveney, “better” than the backstop in terms of safeguarding a frictionless border in Ireland.

Several UK negotiating red lines make that unlikely, even with an additional year of negotiation.

The reports late last night suggested EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was prepared to offer a one year extension to the UK’s transition to allow talks to proceed to reassure DUP opponents of any measures that would create a trade barrier between Britain and Northern Ireland that an eventual backstop implementation would be unlikely to be necessary.

But it is understood that if any such offer were made, the insistence of the EU on a backstop guarantee insurance, effectively keeping just Northern Ireland in the Customs Union, would remain.

It is likely, moreover, that any extension of transition would provoke fierce opposition from Tory backbench Brexiteers who will see it as delaying the UK’s opportunity to strike out on the world stage making exciting new trade deals for itself.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement laid the foundation for Northern Ireland’s peace process with many all-island rules and institutions.

Neither side wants the return of border checks because of the risk to peace whereby a physical border infrastructure would be considered a potential target for paramilitaries.

The backstop is an insurance policy that the EU and UK have agreed to include in the withdrawal agreement to avoid this happening.

Both sides see it as a last resort to be triggered in the event of no better solution being found to avoid a hard border in a EU-UK trade deal. But there is a sequencing problem: a withdrawal treaty must be agreed before a trade deal, hence the need for the backstop first.