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Brexit chief David Davis still to border in Ireland

By Jon Vale

David Davis hasn't visited the Irish border for two decades, the House of Commons has heard.

The Brexit Secretary was yesterday challenged by Labour's Karin Smyth to visit the frontier as he defended the Government's stance on leaving the EU.

It comes after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Mr Davis would be "very welcome" to visit it and that such a trip could prove "helpful".

Yesterday in the Commons, Mr Davis referred to his "previous looking at the border" - around the time of the Belfast Agreement - to examine smuggling.

It prompted shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman to note: "That's 20 years ago."

Mr Davis went on: "That's one occasion. This is an important issue. Indeed when Martin McGuinness was alive, the very last conversation I had with him was about doing exactly that and I will when the time arises.

"But the simple truth is that this border issue is resolvable if we have a free trade agreement and if we have a customs agreement, it is resolvable by technical means as well."

Brexit Minister Suella Fernandes said the Government did not underestimate the issue and that fellow minister Robin Walker had visited the border.

She added: "The Secretary of State has also been to the border prior to his appointment to this position and is very much apprised of the sensitivities and the importance of this critical issue."

During the first day of his trip to the US earlier this week, Mr Varadkar noted how Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has already visited the border, as have a number of MPs and members of the House of Lords.

He challenged Mr Davis and Mr Johnson to follow suit.

"I can't see anything negative in a British Cabinet minister viewing the border, seeing what it looks like," he said.

Mr Varadkar said the Irish Government has good engagements with the British Cabinet and has explained how the Brexit issues are unique to Ireland but, as "in any walk of life... sometimes you need to see things with your own eyes".

Earlier, Mr Davis signalled he is prepared to accept a shorter transition period than the UK wanted.

Mr Davis said he could "live with" the proposed arrangement ending in December 2020, rather than the March 2021 date London has asked for if that would help secure a deal.

The Brexit Secretary, who is to meet the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday, said the European Union and the UK would establish a joint committee during a transition period to guarantee a "duty of good faith" by both sides.

Prime Minister Theresa May has called for an implementation period of "around two years" after Britain formally quits the EU in March 2019.

Mr Davis said his priority was to secure an agreement on the transition phase at next week's EU heads of government summit, telling BBC2's Newsnight: "That is more important to me than a few months either way.

"So, I'm not bothered too much about the question of whether it is Christmas 2020 or Easter 2021."

Asked if he could live with the transition ending in December 2020, Mr Davis said: "I would live with that. We are still in the middle of a negotiation.

"Frankly, what I would not do is delay the decision in order to get a month or two more."

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