UK commitment to soft Irish border more than legally enforceable, says Davis
The Brexit Secretary’s comment on Sunday that the plans were a “statement of intent” was branded “bizarre” by the Irish government.
Britain’s commitment to maintaining a soft Irish border after Brexit is “much more than legally enforceable”, David Davis has said.
The Brexit Secretary said the UK would seek to maintain a “frictionless, invisible” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic even if Friday’s last-minute agreement to allow trade talks to start collapses in the event of a “no deal” Brexit.
His comment on Sunday that the plans were a “statement of intent” was branded “bizarre” by the Irish government, which insisted an agreement that the UK will have “full alignment” with the EU on issues that impact on Northern Ireland was “binding”.
David Davis says UK Govt will be able to avoid a hard border in Ireand "even with a WTO deal". #marr asked him to look into the camera and tell @campaignforleo he will be able to deliver it in practice. pic.twitter.com/QQQZ8JQjQa— Jason Keen (@Jason_Keen) December 10, 2017
But Mr Davis claimed his words had been “completely twisted”.
He told LBC Radio: “What I actually said yesterday in terms was we want to protect the peace process, want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them, and I said this was a statement of intent which was much more than just legally enforceable.
“Of course it’s legally enforceable under the withdrawal agreement but even if that didn’t happen for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless invisible border with Ireland.”
Mr Davis went on: “What we’re saying is this bit of it, the bit about the full alignment argument on the issues which affect the peace process in the Belfast Agreement, we would look to that anyway because one of our absolute underpinning aims is to ensure that Ireland and particularly the Northern Ireland peace process is not harmed.
“And what’s most symbolic in that is the absence of a hard border, the absence of border posts and that sort of thing. And we are quite certain we can do that by technical and other means even if we end up without a deal with the European Union.”
Asked why he said the soft Irish border deal was a statement of intent, Mr Davis replied: “Because it’s more than legally enforceable.
“In the event that the withdrawal agreement doesn’t happen then we would still be seeking to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, that was the point. I was making the point it was much more than just in the treaty, it’s what we want to do anyway.”
Mr Davis dismissed concerns that a soft border between the UK and EU on the island of Ireland could encourage people smuggling.
The Brexit Secretary said the UK would have talks with the Irish government about sharing security data to ensure illegal immigrants do not exploit the soft border.
The spat between Dublin and London emerged as Mrs May was chairing the first Cabinet meeting on Monday since her pre-dawn dash to Brussels to agree a way forward with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last week.
With some Tory Brexiteers expressing concern that the UK has agreed to pay a £39 billion exit bill, let the European Court of Justice have a legal role for a further eight years, and pledged the full alignment on Irish border issues, the PM is saying she has been consistent in her approach.
In a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, Mrs May is expected to say: “This is not about a hard or a soft Brexit.
“The arrangements we have agreed to reach the second phase of the talks are entirely consistent with the principles and objectives that I set out in my speeches in Florence and at Lancaster House. I know that some doubted we would reach this stage.
“Of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But there is, I believe, a new sense of optimism now in the talks and I fully hope and expect that we will confirm the arrangements I have set out today in the European Council later this week.”
Former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that while Mrs May’s agreement was “not ideal” it was an improvement in the state of the negotiations.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Mrs May “cannot now be spooked by the extreme Brexiteers in her party”.
“The agreement last week should be treated as binding and was expressly intended to be part of the Article 50 withdrawal agreement,” he told the Guardian.
“Labour will not allow any rowing back on promises made that would put the union or the peace process at risk.”
The remaining EU27 countries will decide at a Brussels summit later this week whether trade talks with the UK can finally begin.
Comments by Mr Davis that the UK would not pay its £39 billion exit bill unless it gets a trade deal are likely to have caused disquiet on the Continent.