Irish officials 'stunned' as British want soft Border deal to last just 12 weeks

The British government is demanding the right to pull out of the guarantee of no hard Border within just three months.

The hardline stance adopted by the British “stunned” Irish officials, and was viewed as a setback to clinching a Brexit deal this week.

British Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab tabled the proposal during a “robust” meeting with Tánaiste Simon Coveney last Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May will bring plans to avoid a hard Border to her divided cabinet tomorrow.

The plan sees the whole of Britain remaining in the EU customs union – not just Northern Ireland. This would negate the need for checks at the Border.

Mr Raab’s proposal to Mr Coveney was that within three months of the backstop coming into force – or six months at the very most – Britain would have the right to trigger a “review mechanism” in which the backstop would persist only by “mutual consent”.

British media reports that Mrs May had already concluded a “secret deal”, were dismissed by negotiators.

“If anything, things are now going backwards,” one official said.

  • Read more: Coveney claims report of secret deal to keep UK in customs union after Brexit is ‘unhelpful commentary’

The Government has been forced to deny British claims that our demands for a strict Border guarantee are being watered-down to secure a deal.

A spokesman for Tánaiste Simon Coveney said: “The Tánaiste and Dominic Raab had a robust but respectful meeting in London last Tuesday evening.

“The Tanaiste couldn’t have been clearer that a time-limited backstop or a backstop that could be ended by the UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by Ireland or the EU.

“These ideas are not backstops at all and don’t deliver the UK’s obligations,” the spokesman said.

Ahead of Mrs May’s cabinet meeting, sources here said the situation was at its “most sensitive yet” and she will be “dancing on the head of a pin” to secure agreement on the deal in her government.

The temporary customs arrangement believed to be on the table would see all of the UK remain closely aligned to EU trade rules for a time period.

However, in order for the EU to accept this compromise, Mrs May must convince her colleagues and the DUP to agree that Northern Ireland can only opt out of the customs union when another mechanism of ensuring a soft Border is agreed.

The Irish Government is opposed to any suggestion the backstop would have an “exit clause” as suggested in the ‘Sunday Times’ report.

The article quotes a senior Whitehall source as saying: “The PM will be able to say there’s no more backstop, we’ve got rid of that – success. There’s an exit mechanism – success… The small print is that Ireland is f*****.”

Downing Street claimed the report about the deal is “all speculation”.

A spokesperson said: “The prime minister has been clear that we are making good progress on the future relationship and 95pc of the Withdrawal Agreement is now settled and negotiations are ongoing.”

Here, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said he remained “very fearful” Irish interests could be sacrificed by Europe to secure a deal and said Ireland has to be “vigilant”.

Mr Howlin said he was concerned Ireland had been “boxed into a corner where the backstop issue is the one remaining issue” and faced incredible pressure as a result.

He told RTÉ’s ‘The Week in Politics’: “Unfortunately that’s the position that we find ourselves in now.”

Junior minister Damien English dismissed the suggestion that Ireland was “going to be shafted”, insisting it was “not true”.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said he wouldn’t add to what he described as “speculation”.

  • Read more: ‘Brexit has undermined the Good Friday Agreement’ – Taoiseach on ‘fraying relationship between Britain and Ireland’

He said there was a “rapidly ticking clock” but that minds were now being focused with a view to concluding a deal and he welcomed that.

Mr Coveney’s spokesperson said the EU had been united through the Brexit process and the UK had given written commitments that the Withdrawal Agreement would give a legal guarantee of no return to a hard Border in Ireland in any circumstance.

“This is the backstop,” he added, saying the UK had agreed that it would apply “unless and until” a close future relationship eliminated any need for Border infrastructure and checks.

The statement said that senior EU figures like Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier “and indeed Theresa May herself” have all said there will not be a deal “without a legal guarantee of no hard Border in Ireland”.

He added: “We hope a deal can be done but we’re not there yet.”

There is the prospect of a special EU summit later this month if a deal on the backstop can be reached later this week.

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