Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Positive signs as Brexit backstop options are explored

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar give a joint press conference in Dublin
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar give a joint press conference in Dublin
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Relations between London and Dublin are at an all-time low over Brexit but there was hope of positive movement when Boris met Leo on Monday.

It didn't go badly. The Prime Minister's quip about how Margaret Thatcher had "loved" Charlie Haughey was as controversial as it got during their tete-a-tete in Government Buildings.

Both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are currently facing massively challenging situations.

Johnson's problems may have received far greater airtime, but there is also significant pressure on Varadkar, even although you'd never guess to look at him. A no-deal Brexit will plunge the Republic into recession and wipe out Fine Gael's electoral chances.

While there was no breakthrough during the discussions, the tone in the first bilateral meeting between the two men was less hostile than some recent exchanges we've witnessed.

In a joint statement, they agreed that the talks had been "positive and constructive" with "common ground" identified, but they acknowledged that "significant gaps" remained.

There has been increasing speculation since the weekend about a Northern Ireland-only backstop being once again a real runner as a way out of the Brexit deadlock.

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It is argued that, with the Tories' majority in Parliament gone, the DUP could well be hung out to dry by Johnson, who has certainly shown himself capable of considerable U-turns in the past.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann was certainly alert to the dangers ahead for unionists, highlighting how the Prime Minister yesterday asked in Dublin "can we protect the economic unity of the island of Ireland?"

Nigel Farage also smelt a rat. "The Boris bravado has disappeared in Dublin, saying No Deal would be a 'failure of statecraft'.

"He is now going all-out for Mrs May's deal, with Northern Ireland to be hived off from the rest of the UK," the Brexit Party leader tweeted.

For its part, the DUP remains confident that a U-turn is not on the agenda. "The Prime Minister has already ruled out a Northern Ireland only backstop because it would be anti-democratic and unconstitutional," Arlene Foster said yesterday.

Rather than feeling threatened by what Johnson said in Dublin, Foster hailed it as encouraging that he and the Taoiseach had "dialled down the rhetoric". An all-island agri-food area has been floated as an alternative to the backstop.

Varadkar said yesterday that this would only remove the need for 30% of border checks. But expanding this into other areas could be the basis for a potential way forward.

Yet would it not represent a border in the Irish Sea, which the DUP is pledged to oppose?

Foster yesterday acknowledged that there are areas where Northern Ireland and the Republic are already closely aligned - the all-Ireland electricity market and a single agricultural zone applying to the movement of animals across the Border.

The DUP would sell a deal along those lines as representing no new border being created. Foster will be at Westminster today to continue discussions with the Government on breaking the Brexit impasse.

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