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Boris Johnson pledges no border checks in Ireland as Varadkar insists 'Brexit backstop critical'

By Ryan Nugent, Kevin Doyle and Shawn Pogatchnik

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the UK's position on the peace process is "unshakeable" but insisted "permanent damage" would be done to the UK's democracy if they don't leave the EU by October 31.

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Mr Johnson promised the UK would not impose border checks and said he hopes the EU would follow suit.

"As someone who went to the border several times before the Good Friday Agreement and shuddered to see watch towers on UK soil, I can say now as I've said many times before, the UK will never, ever institute checks at the border and I hope our friends in the EU would say the same.

"Can we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its particulars? Again, I say the answer is yes and our commitment in the UK to the peace process is unshakeable, "he added.

However, Mr Johnson said the UK's democracy would be damaged if they did not leave the EU next month.

"We must get Brexit done because the UK must come out by October 31 or else I fear permanent damage will be done in the UK to trust in our democratic system. I know Brexit was not, to be perfectly frank, a conundrum Ireland wished for," Mr Johnson said.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Government Buildings during his visit to Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire

When asked when the public will see details of the compromise offer Boris Johnson is prepared to make, he replied; "I remember the old border, and I've seen the new arrangements.

"But on the plan, well I think it's fairly obvious what needs to be done.

"The landing zone is clear to everyone - we need to find a way that the UK does not get locked in the backstop arrangement.

"I don't underestimate the difficulties we face and the technical difficulties we face and the political sensitivities... we need to satisfy the needs of everyone.

"I think there is a way of doing that," he added.

In his statement at Government Buildings, Mr Varadkar told Mr Johnson "the stakes are high" in Brexit negotiations and that the "backstop is critical" - stating that no alternative has been offered by the UK.

Mr Varadkar said there's no such thing as a clean break if the UK leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Government Buildings during his visit to Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire

The Taoiseach said the process of leaving the EU and negotiating free trade agreements with the EU and US will be a huge challenge for Mr Johnson and "we do want to be your friend, your ally in doing so".

"And I think the manner in which you leave the European Union will determine whether that's possible," he said.

"I am ready to listen to any constructive ways to which we can achieve our agreed goals and resolve the current impasse but what we cannot do and will not do, and I know you understand this, is agree to the replacement of a legal guarantee with a promise.

"Our businesses need long-term certainty and the people of this island, north and south, need to know their livelihood, their security and their sense of identity will not be put at risk as a consequence of Brexit.

"The stakes are high. Avoiding the return to a hard border on this island and protecting our place in the single market are the Irish government's priorities in all circumstances.

"We must protect the peace and also the burgeoning all-island economy and that's why for us the backstop continues to be a critical component of the withdrawal agreement unless and until alternatives are found.

"We are open to alternatives but they must be realistic ones, legally binding and workable and we haven't received such proposals to date," he added.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Government Buildings during his visit to Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Both leader made their comments ahead of talks at Government Buildings on Monday morning.

In a joint statement issued by both leaders after their meeting, they said there are still “significant gaps” between the UK and Ireland on how to ensure an orderly Brexit.

Their encounter in Dublin is described as “a positive and constructive” meeting where they tried to get a “better understanding of each other’s positions”.

They spoke privately over breakfast for more than half an hour before joining their delegations for another half hour meeting.

“While they agreed that the discussions are at an early stage, common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain,” the statement said.

It added: “Ireland and the UK are committed to securing an agreement between the European Union and the UK, and recognise that negotiations take place through the Brussels Task Force.

“They also shared their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland.”

Earlier Mr Varadkar said he didn't anticipate "a big breakthrough" today, but acknowledged the meeting comes against a backdrop where the "stakes are high".

While Ireland doesn't negotiate directly with the UK on Brexit, the two leaders can discuss potential alternatives to the backstop.

The UK is toying with the idea of an all-Ireland system of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on agricultural products - but Mr Varadkar said yesterday this would only remove the need for around 30pc of border checks.

"It's not enough on its own. We would need a single Irish economic zone, or whatever you would like to call it, to cover more than agriculture and food," he said.

Asked whether he would consider a return to earlier proposals of Northern Ireland-specific solutions, the Taoiseach said Ireland had always been open to this idea.

"It will be interesting to see whether we could find some common ground on a Northern Ireland-specific solution, but I will have to judge that," he said.

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