Belfast Telegraph

Paisley’s ‘Irish cows’ quip may be beginnings of a solution to backstop issue, PM suggests

By Steven Alexander and Kevin Doyle

The late Ian Paisley's 'Irish cows' could hold the "germ" of a solution to the border backstop, Boris Johnson has suggested.

The Prime Minister used the former First Minister's suggestion that people in Northern Ireland were British "but our cows are Irish" to bolster support for an agri-food regulatory regime in Northern Ireland that would see it stay in alignment with the EU.

In response to a question from The Irish Times during a speech in Yorkshire yesterday, the Prime Minister said: "You're right - that's what Ian Paisley said. He said of Northern Ireland that the people were British, but the cattle were Irish.

"And in that idea there is the germ of a solution to the question of frictionless movement across the Northern Irish border.

"We do want to minimise all theoretical checks as well as practical checks.

"We think all practical checks can of course be taken away from the border; there's no need...

"And the UK will not be instituting any border checks of any kind in Northern Ireland.

"We also think there is scope for recognition of the practical reality on the ground in the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland."

Whether that could be extended to other sectors "depends entirely on democratic control by the people of the United Kingdom".

Rev Paisley's reference to cows here being Irish were first revealed by Jonathan Powell, a former adviser to Tony Blair during the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

He wrote: "The border between Ireland and the UK just came to mean much less once we were both in the EU.

"This was particularly brought home to me when Ian Paisley, the fire-breathing DUP leader, came to see Tony Blair in the midst of the 2005 Foot and Mouth crisis in the UK and in an attempt to take advantage of the looser restrictions on movement of cattle in the south than in the north said, 'Our people may be British but our cows are Irish'."

Mr Johnson's reference to Rev Paisley - later Lord Bannside - will be seen as an attempt to ameliorate DUP concerns, as the proposal appears to cross the DUP's red line of having a border in the Irish Sea.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

But in an apparent softening of its position, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has said his party is open to discussions with Mr Johnson on a possible all-Ireland food standards zone as part of a solution to the Brexit backstop.

A dossier drawn up for the Government has described an all-island economy for food and agricultural products as the "most practical" and "deliverable" alternative to the backstop.

The secret papers prepared for Mr Johnson show the best substitute for the backstop is broadly similar to what is currently on the table - and would create a regulatory barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Dated August 28 and marked "official-sensitive", the document said "regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be the most likely way of breaking the current impasse.

The document was prepared for the EU Exit Negotiations Board and sets out a timeline for the UK to actually produce alternative ideas to the backstop.

Meanwhile, in the Commons, DUP deputy leader Mr Dodds welcomed "remarks of the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic yesterday in which indicated that in the event of a no-deal there will be no checks or infrastructure at the border".

"That's very, very welcome - we should build on that, in that there is room for progress to get a deal, which we all want."

Elsewhere, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said talks on the backstop should be the easiest part of the Brexit process, ahead of a showdown with Mr Johnson.

Mr Varadkar has indicated he will not be in a compromising mood when the Prime Minister goes to Dublin on Monday.

Irish officials are confident the meeting will go ahead despite Mr Johnson's plan to try to collapse his own Government that evening. But the Taoiseach has sought to turn up the pressure on his counterpart, saying he will not allow the UK to "merely kick the can down the road".

"A Withdrawal Agreement without the backstop is no good to us," Mr Varadkar told the British Irish Chamber of Commerce last night.

He hopes Mr Johnson will bring genuine proposals to Farmleigh House - but added that in any event "there is no such thing as a clean break".

The Prime Minister's priority now appears to be convincing parliament to sanction an election on October 15.

He claimed legislation which forces him to seek a delay to Brexit has "absolutely torpedoed" his negotiating position.

Despite MPs coming together to block a disorderly Brexit, the Irish Government's assessment is that no-deal remains the most likely outcome.

Significantly, Mr Varadkar said last night that this would result in checkpoints "near the border". Previously the Irish Government has refused to go further than to say checks would be "away" from the border.

Ministers are wary of the motivations behind Mr Johnson's trip to Dublin given he has stated the negotiations cannot proceed without a UK election first.

However, ministers are keen for the meeting to take place so that Mr Varadkar can personally reiterate a willingness to work with the UK if they produce workable alternatives to the backstop.

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