‘Deal to avoid hard border will stay’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is refusing to budge on a crucial deal for a frictionless border and special status for the North after unionists slammed the brakes on the planned EU-UK Brexit agreement, write Juno McEnroe and Fiachra O Cionnaith.

Mr Varadkar took the stance despite British prime minister Theresa May being forced to backtrack on the agreement by the DUP, which last night told the Irish Examiner it is willing to collapse the Conservative minority government unless its views are heard.

The surprise intervention by the unionists has stalled agreement to align the North’s regulations with Ireland, a policy which would have effectively avoided a hard border.

And while talks between Britain and Brussels will resume this week in a bid to resolve the stand-off, it remains unclear if an acceptable deal can be reached by the end of this year as more crucial Brexit deadlines loom.

The dramatic day had started with confident statements from Government Buildings and even a tweet from EU Council president Donald Tusk declaring: “Tell me why I like Mondays!”

However, the optimism was short-lived after a crucial lunch in Brussels between Ms May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on the details of the deal was interrupted.

Ms May was forced to take a call from DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party had convened a surprise press conference in Belfast and ruled out accepting any move “which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom”.

A Dublin press conference for Mr Varadkar was also cancelled.

The deal was off and Ms May and Mr Juncker made brief statements saying more time was needed.

However, the effort by the DUP to topple the talks has turned all eyes on the North and Ms May, who must now resolve differences with the unionist party who support her government. Tensions also mounted as DUP hardliners attacked the Irish Government.

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson accused Mr Varadkar and his cabinet of being “a bunch of political chancers” and of “trying to pursue a “republican agenda”.

Echoing the sentiment, a senior DUP source last night told the Irish Examiner the party is willing to collapse Ms May’s government if it is forced to accept the current agreement.

While declining to say if the threat was made during Ms Foster’s call to Ms May, he said “if it came to a situation where we were having it actively pushed on us, then there would obviously be consequences”.

Any patched-up deal must be agreed in the coming days in order for EU capitals to sign off on it before an EU summit on December 14.

Nonetheless, Mr Varadkar is unlikely to cave into any fresh demands from the DUP or Ms May and insisted after the Brexit day of bedlam that Ireland had the full support of the EU.

“My position and that of the Irish Government is unequivocal and is supported by all the parties in Dáil Éireann and I believe the majority of people on these islands,” he said, adding he would not agree to change the substance of the deal.

The plan said there would be “continued regulatory alignment” with the South, effectively meaning the current economic links would remain.

And it confirmed the Good Friday Agreement guaranteeing Dublin and London’s role in the North would be honoured in addition to copper-fastening protections for the common travel area.

Fianna Fáil Brexit spokesman Stephen Donnelly last night told the Government to speak directly with the DUP to end the stand-off.

He told the Irish Examiner officials must “take the DUP concerns seriously” and that while “in the first instance the Tories should talk to them, but why not us?”.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said he shared “the disappointment expressed by the Taoiseach”.

This story originally appeared in the Irish Examiner.


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