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Simon Coveney accuses BBC's John Humphreys of speaking for Boris Johnson

Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney (Niall Carson/PA)
Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney (Niall Carson/PA)

By Michael Sheils McNamee

The Republic's Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney has accused BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphreys of speaking for Boris Johnson.

Appearing on the Today programme, Mr Coveney was speaking ahead of crunch negotiations between EU leaders and Theresa May in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, with clarity yet to be reached on a number of key areas.

Mr Coveney, who also serves as Ireland's Foreign Minister, was quizzed by host Humphreys on the role of the backstop agreement - which would maintain customs alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU after Brexit if an alternative agreement cannot be reached.

"A number of things need to be achieved in terms of the final outcome," Mr Coveney said.

"There needs to be a backstop, unless and until, something better can be negotiated or agreed. And what Michel Barnier has indicated very clearly is that the EU side certainly is willing to allow more time in the transition period to agree an alternative solution to the backstop."

Mr Coveney stated his support for the unionist position of not having a customs border in the Irish Sea, and that the backstop arrangement was in place as an insurance policy.

"This is a little bit like if you take out insurance on your home, you don’t expect it to burn down but you do take out fire insurance," he said.

Presenter Humphreys then put it to Mr Coveney the backstop would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU, to which he responded: "Let me please correct you on that, nobody is suggesting Northern Ireland is kept in the European Union."

John Humphreys

Humphreys clarified it was a view put forward by former Cabinet members Boris Johnson and David Davis - both of who resigned in opposition to the Prime Minister's Chequers proposals.

"Johnson doesn’t lead the Cabinet, he isn’t even in the Cabinet," said Mr Coveney.

"He speaks for a very powerful force of public opinion," responded Mr Humphreys.

"Well John, you sound like you’re speaking for him," said Mr Coveney.

It was the culmination of a terse interview, in which Mr Coveney also challenged the host when it was suggested the backstop could still be eliminated during negotiations, and had effectively been put forward by the Republic.

"Our proposals are EU proposals, and it’s not what we want, it’s what has already been agreed," Mr Coveney said in response to this.

The Irish Foreign Minister said there could be a degree of flexibility in how the backstop is implemented, including extending the UK's transition period.

"What [the EU chief negotiator] Michel Barnier is now suggesting is: let’s ensure the backstop is never likely to be used by creating the space and time for the UK and the EU to be able to negotiate UK-wide customs arrangements," Mr Coveney said.

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