Irish border backstop cannot be renegotiated, Leo Varadkar warns

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said it is not the time for a border poll and urged Sinn Féin to take up their Westminster seats to support the Brexit deal. Picture by Michelle Devane, Press Association
Cate McCurry and David Young, Press Association


THE substance of the Brexit withdrawal treaty cannot be changed, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar said while he and other EU leaders would work to provide assurances to the UK in terms of future relations, there could be no question of removing the border backstop.

Addressing the Dail in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said he still believed the agreement would be ratified by Westminster and the European Parliament.

"We have a meeting with the European Council on Thursday and Friday and will have an opportunity to engage with Prime Minister May and an opportunity to speak with my colleagues," he said.

"I'll be taking a call with President Juncker later on today to see what assurances we can give the United Kingdom parliament that might assist them to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.

"However, that cannot be a change in the substance of that agreement including the substance of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. But that is what we are going to work towards."

Responding to Sinn Fein demands for a poll on Irish unity in the context of a no-deal Brexit, Mr Varadkar reiterated his opposition to the suggestion, insisting it was not the time to talk about border polls.

"To inject a constitutional dimension into this debate now is destructive and disruptive because there are people who are arguing against this deal because they believe that having special arrangements around regulations for goods somehow weakens the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain," he said.

"We know that is not the case. There are lots of special arrangements for Northern Ireland already.

"In so many different areas Northern Ireland is already different to Great Britain, from social policy through to agricultural regulations.

"I don't believe stirring up tensions in Northern Ireland or turning this issue into one of orange versus green is helpful at all at this time."

 Michelle O'Neill reiterates her party's position on Brexit in Belfast today.

Abstentionist policy

In heated exchanges, Mr Varadkar told Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald that the party should drop its abstentionist policy at Westminster and take up its seven seats to back the Brexit deal.

"We are trying to avoid a scenario in which the United Kingdom including Northern Ireland crashes out of the European Union and that means ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement which the European Union and 28 governments have agreed," he said.

"And the best thing you can do to avoid that scenario occurring, to avoid disruption to businesses, avoid possible loss of jobs, particularly in Northern Ireland and the border, is for you to take up your seats in Westminster and to vote for that Withdrawal Agreement.

"And the second best thing you can do is to bring together the institutions that were established in the Good Friday Agreement. These are the things you can do."

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Mrs McDonald denied turning the issue into a green and orange wrangle.

"Considerable efforts and very fruitful efforts have been made to ensure a cross-community and a cross-party support for a consensus in the North that is against Brexit, because Brexit is a British/Tory invention and all of this disruption isn't of our making of anyone in this house, it's the making of the Tories across the water," she said.

"You talk about relying on a vote at Westminster and the safe passage of the Withdrawal Agreement - that may or may not occur. I don't want to see a crash no more than you do, but I also want to say to you as head of Government with a responsibility to advance Irish national interest and to protect everybody, north and south, east and west on this island, you have to now to prepare and plan with your eyes wide open for such an unfortunate scenario.

"Rather than evading your responsibilities by talking up disruption or disruptive forces, you need to look this dilemma squarely in the eye because if there is a crash then all bets are off as regards the Good Friday Agreement, all bets are off in terms of economic prosperity and social cohesion and solidarity.

"Rather than advancing this plan as something that is hostile to any part of our people you need to understand it as an absolute necessity in the advance of a crash we need a strong robust Plan B.

"The only viable Plan B would be the removal of the border."

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