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Bilateral deal between the UK and Ireland ruled out

Theresa May is due to set out her next steps on trying to salvage her Brexit plans to the House of Commons today.

Updated Jan 21st 2019, 2:15 PM

THE EUROPEAN UNION’S lead Brexit negotiator has dismissed reports of a bilateral arrangement between the UK and Ireland.

In an interview with RTÉ News, Michel Barnier said the EU negotiated as one team.

Meanwhile, a question mark has been raised over the controversial backstop today, after Poland suggested the backstop could have a five-year limit.

However, it is understood that Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said that does not represent the thinking of other EU leaders. 

Barnier told RTÉ’s Tony Connolly that the backstop was agreed as an “all weather” insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, he said.

He added that the focus was now on the future relationship and the political declaration which sketches that relationship.

Earlier today Downing Street rejected a report in today’s Daily Telegraph newspaper that Prime Minister Theresa May is considering rewriting a portion of the Good Friday Agreement so she can help get her Brexit deal through.

The prime minister is due to address the House of Commons today to outline the so-called “plan B” on Brexit, after her original deal was roundly defeated last week.

One of the proposals that could form this plan B would be rewriting the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement to assure Ireland the UK is committed to ensuring no hard border, the Telegraph reported.

Members of her cabinet believe such a plan would avoid having to commit to the Northern Irish backstop – the red line issue for Ireland and the EU which was a key reason May lost the vote on her Brexit deal by such a wide margin last week.

However, after this report emerged Downing Street said that such assertions were incorrect, and the Good Friday Agreement couldn’t be changed.

Changing the deal – which set out a blueprint for peace after decades of violence in the North – is seen as a non-runner for the EU, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Speaking on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio One today, Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee said the agreement was  “not negotiable”.

“Everything that we’re hearing in the last day or two is speculation, and until the Prime Minister actually brings something forward today and we actually hear what it is she has to say, all of this is speculation,” she said.

“But suggestions that we would amend, change, delete, or remove parts of the Good Friday Agreement are not something that we would be considering even looking at.”

Backstop

May must find some way of winning over the Eurosceptics within her own party and the DUP if her Brexit deal is to go through – and some way that avoids the backstop she agreed with the EU is vital for the prime minister.

The Irish backstop, which is referred to in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement as “the Protocol” is a promise that if all efforts to close a deal fail, that there will be “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland to avoid a hard border.

This would mean that rules and regulations in Northern Ireland would have to be similar to the EU’s/Ireland’s rules, to avoid customs checks or posts that would make up a hard border.

Graham Brady, who chairs the Conservative MP backbenchers’ group, said he thought May could get her Brexit deal past Conservative rebels if the Irish backstop “can be sorted out”.

“So much of the vote against was from people who simply cannot support a potentially permanent backstop, if that can be sorted out then I think we might get that withdrawal agreement through,” he told BBC radio over the weekend.

He said it was in Ireland’s interests to help Britain leave the EU with a deal, saying they would be far more hurt by a no-deal Brexit that Britain as most of their trade comes through the UK.

What happens today

May will address the Commons today to outline her new plans for Brexit, but has little time to win a consensus with roughly 10 weeks to go before the UK is due to leave the EU.

EU chiefs have so far ruled out renegotiating the agreement, but have signalled they could postpone the withdrawal if May changes her “red lines” on leaving the EU’s customs union and blocking free movement of citizens.

After May sets out her plans for the way ahead, MPs are set to table a series of amendments, to be voted upon on January 29.

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha, Stephen McDermott, Christina Finn and AFP

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Sean Murray

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