Northern Ireland news

Boris Johnston says Ireland border being used to frustrate Britain's departure from the EU

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Picture by Brian Lawless, PA Wire

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said the political row over the Irish border had been stoked by those hoping to frustrate Britain's departure from the EU.

It comes as a letter sent by Mr Johnson to the Prime Minister emerged, saying that the Government's focus should be on preventing a "significantly" harder border.

Speaking to reporters after returning from a jog in the snow, he said: "What is going on at the moment is that the issue of the Northern Irish border is being used quite a lot politically to try and keep the UK in the customs union - effectively the single market - so we cannot really leave the EU, that is what is going on.

"What the letter says is that, actually, there are are very good solutions that you could put in place that would obviate, prevent any kind of hard border but would allow goods, people - people of course move totally freely anyway because of the common travel area - allow goods to move freely without let or hindrance whilst allowing the UK to come out of the customs union, take back control of our tariffs schedules, take back control of our commercial policy, take back control of our regulation.

"It is a very positive letter."

Mr Johnson continued: "The DUP, as far as I understand the matter, are worried about the possibility of an east-west border which would be necessitated by having a system on the island of Ireland that didn't allow for some sort of verification of traders going north-south, but what the letter points out is that there are all sorts of ways of doing that without having a hard border."

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson today accused the EU of trying to use the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to keep the whole of the UK in the single market and the customs union.

Mr Wilson said the only solution to the border issue that the EU appeared to be interested in was the fall-back position of maintaining "regulatory alignment" between the North and the Republic after Brexit.

"The EU have been trying to manoeuvre the negotiations to ensure that the United Kingdom as a whole stays within the single market and customs union and have been using - or abusing - Northern Ireland to try and bring that situation about," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"It seems that the EU have made it quite clear that the only option they are interested in is regulatory alignment which would either remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, separate us from our main market and politically create an issue where we are separated from the rest of the United Kingdom, or else force the whole of the United Kingdom to stay in the single market and the customs union."

Boris Johnson also repeated comments likening the Irish border to the congestion zones in London, asking a reporter: "I don't know whether you have ever driven into the congestion charge zone from outside the congestion charge zone - have you?

"Do you slow down? Do you feel any let or hindrance? Do you check your progress? Do you brake? Do you?"

Asked if this meant that Ireland could expect a Transport for London-style border, he replied: "All I'm saying is there are solutions that we can envisage, we have got to be positive about this.

"We can do this - we can come out of the customs union while solving the Northern Ireland border problem and we must not allow this great sort of inverted pyramid of objections to be built over this problem, which I think is eminently solvable."

He added: "I think the particular problem around the Irish border is being used politically to drive the whole Brexit argument and effectively to try and frustrate Brexit."

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested the island of Ireland could enjoy post-Brexit common regulation in the same way as the Republic and the UK have a common travel area.

Mr Varadkar said the legal text on Britain's withdrawal from the EU states there will not be a hard border with Northern Ireland.

"Some people were trying to suggest in the last couple of weeks that we over-spun, or oversold what was achieved in December. I think people will see today that that charge from the opposition (parties in Ireland) and others is not correct," he said.

Mr Varadkar told Newstalk radio: "Option C is how we can avoid a hard border. We set that out in legal terms today, it is very clear.

"In the same way that we have a common travel area between Britain and Ireland we could have a common regulatory area involving Northern Ireland.

"A lot of the rules of the customs and single market would apply in the north and that means there doesn't have to be a hard border so it is do-able. We've set it out in a legal text."

Mr Varadkar said his Government would prefer to see what is being classed as "Option A" - a new relationship between the UK and EU that is so close that a border is unnecessary.

"It's up to the UK to bring proposals to the table to make that possible and I hope that we will see some indication in Theresa May's, the Prime Minister's speech on Friday as to how they intend to do that," Mr Varadkar said.

"It's not OK for people - whether it's pro-Brexit politicians in Britain or people from parties in Northern Ireland - to just say no now. It's incumbent on them if they can't accept the backstop then they must detail how Option A or B would work.

"It's really up to those who can't accept the backstop to actually come up with those alternative solutions. And actually write them down. It can't be theoretical stuff about congestion charges."


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