Belfast Telegraph

We can sort out border after Brexit, says Boris as rivals for PM lock horns

By Lauren Harte and Gareth Cross

Conservative leadership front-runner Boris Johnson insisted that the Irish border row can be sorted out after Brexit during the BBC Tory leadership debate last night.

Four of the five candidates rejected the backstop and the same four also said they were willing to accept a no-deal Brexit, with only Rory Stewart taking the opposite view.

Mr Johnson, the clear favourite in the Tory leadership contest, pledged that the Government will "never ever" agree to a return to a hard border in Ireland.

The debate took place after candidate Dominic Raab was eliminated earlier in the evening.

One viewer, Mark from Belfast, asked the candidates how they would solve the Irish border issue, a subject he said many people in Northern Ireland viewed as Theresa May's downfall.

Mr Johnson said the issue could be dealt with during trade negotiations after the Withdrawal Agreement was passed by MPs.

"I remember what it was like during the Troubles and nobody wants to see the return of any kind of infrastructure or hard border - of course not - and the UK Government will never ever do that," the former Foreign Secretary said.

"Now what you can do is solve the questions of how to keep goods flowing freely across that border whilst the UK comes out of the EU as a whole.

"You can solve that issue during the implementation period whilst we negotiate the free trade deal."

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who previously worked in Northern Ireland, said the Irish border question was about "much more than just trade across the border".

He said there was a need to get the Assembly back up and running to give the SDLP and Irish nationalists a voice in the Brexit process.

"We need to recognise that there are delicate relationships on the border and make sure that border communities receive the support that they need.

"We also need to supercharge work on alternative arrangements."

When asked by presenter Emily Maitlis if he was still welcome in Northern Ireland, given his previous criticism of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Gove said he enjoyed "incredibly good relations with the Irish government and politicians on both sides of the sectarian divide".

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said EU leaders wanted the UK to come forward with a solution to the current impasse.

"What they're saying is very straightforward. It's the UK that has the border with the Republic of Ireland and it's for us to come forward with a solution that would work.

"I think everyone here would agree that what we can't have is a return to border infrastructure on the island of Ireland."

Mr Hunt added that the UK needs to show that it can keep the border open. "I think that through technology we can do that but we have to do that in a way that doesn't trap us in the customs union," he said.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said he was "100% committed to the Good Friday Agreement and keeping an open border".

"In my department, Borderforce has looked at this issue and it's perfectly possible to have an open border with two different customs arrangements on either side of the border using existing technology," he said - although Ms Maitlis pointed out that the existence of the technology to do so is in doubt. "Obviously it will take time to put that in place and it will cost money. I would have a time limit on the backstop. There will have to be some sort of compromise."

International Development Secretary Rory Stewart said that he had visited Enniskillen and Londonderry recently and argued that Mr Johnson's plans wouldn't deal with trade tariffs for farmers in border regions.

Mr Johnson said that there would "be no tariffs or quotas" and that he wanted a "standstill in current arrangements" until a trade agreement was negotiated.

Mr Stewart said that the Withdrawal Agreement was legally binding and would not be renegotiated before October 31, and accused the other candidates of not explaining how they would enact their Irish border plans.

Following the answers, the questioner Mark said that there was "a lot of fear and confusion in Northern Ireland if we come crashing out without a deal", adding that he had been "hoping for more" from the candidates.

The backstop aims to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit, but opponents have claimed it could keep the UK aligned with the EU indefinitely and create a trade border in the Irish Sea.

The backstop effectively ended Theresa May's hopes of getting her Brexit deal through Parliament and its failure hastened her departure as Prime Minister.

However, the EU has said it will not renegotiate the deal, which includes the backstop.

Ballots of Conservative MPs will continue over the next few days to whittle the race down to the final two candidates. The final stage of the leadership race will begin and members will then vote on the next Party leader and Prime Minister, with the result expected on July 22.

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