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FactCheck: Did the Taoiseach threaten to ban British planes from Irish skies?

The UK’s Sun newspaper carried the front page “Irish PM: I’ll ban British planes as revenge for Brexit”.


THE TAOISEACH LEO Varadkar has been criticised in the UK for a comment he made about UK airplanes potentially not being able to fly in Irish airspace after Brexit.

The criticism – mostly from Brexiteers, including the Sun newspaper which has taken a strongly anti-EU editorial stance – says that the Taoiseach threatened to deny British planes permission to fly in Irish skies as a way to get revenge for some of the fall-out for Brexit.

The claim: The Sun said that Leo Varadkar “threatened to block British planes flying over his country” as a “tit-for-tat response” if Theresa May cut Irish fishermen’s access to British waters after Brexit.

The background:

The direct quote from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was:

If they want their planes to fly over our skies, they would need to take that into account. You can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t take back your waters and then expect to take back other people’s sky.

Today, the UK’s Sun newspaper’s front page carried the story; “Irish PM: I’ll ban British planes as revenge for Brexit.”

“The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made bizarre suggestion the UK ‘can’t take back your waters and then expect to take back other people’s sky’,” it wrote.

Conservative MEP for East England David C Bannerman said that Ireland would also lose out if this were to happen.

The most profitable routes for all European airlines are transatlantic routes through British airspace. They would be bankrupted if no aviation deal is done. Ryanair and Aer Lingus would also be grounded. Stop this shameful blackmail.

Those defending Varadkar have said that the quotes were twisted out of context and that he was simply stating a fact, rather than threatening to cut relations with the UK.

Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond wrote on Twitter that the Taoiseach was “reiterating a factual statement that Philip Hammond [the British Chancellor for the Exchequer] also made earlier this year.”

“A crash out scenario sees the UK crash out of the EU-US open skies agreement,” Richmond wrote.

“Sighing very deeply at the number of Brexiteers (including some MPs) who have taken this as some kind of threat,” TV3′s political correspondent Gavan Reilly said, ”rather than a simple acknowledgement that a no-deal Brexit means withdrawing from airspace agreements. Nobody’s blind to the effect that has for Ireland either.”

So what was the context?

Irish government cabinet meeting in Derrynane Source: Brian Lawless via PA Images

Varadkar and his Cabinet ministers went down to Derrynane House, Co Kerry, for a special meeting about preparations for Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit which would cause complications for the border and the Irish economy.

The government decided on a number of actions to safeguard the Irish economy against the many different forms Brexit could take, including hiring more customs officers for additional checks at ports and airports.

Aside from trade and tariffs, there are a number of other questions that are being addressed as part of the overall Brexit talks: the UK has said it would leave the London Fisheries Convention, which would impact the Irish industry; the defence and security implications of Brexit haven’t yet been realised; and the travel implications for those visiting the UK haven’t been agreed yet.

Among the uncertainties is the use of UK and EU airspaces, which the Taoiseach was asked about by reporters on Wednesday.

He was asked whether there was scope for an emergency treaty to ensure open airspace if the UK leaves the EU without a transition arrangement.

The situation at the moment is that the United Kingdom is part of the Single European Sky, and if they leave the EU they are not. And that does mean that if there was a no-deal ‘hard Brexit’ next March, the planes would not fly, and Britain would be an island – in many ways – and that is something that they need to think about.

He was again asked if there were plans to avoid this.

Our plan is to negotiate a withdrawal agreement that provides for a transition, but there can only be a withdrawal agreement if there is a backstop, and our position is to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with the UK and an aviation agreement with the UK.
But ultimately it is the UK that has decided to leave the EU [and] decided to leave the Single European Sky. And if they want their planes to fly over our sky, they would need to take that into account. You can not have your cake and eat it. You can’t take back your waters and then expect to use other people’s sky.

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What is the Single European Sky?

The Single European Sky looks after the management and regulation of airspace across the European Union. According to the European Commission, the Single European Sky aims to “reform air traffic management in Europe in order to cope with sustained air traffic growth and operations under the safest, most cost- and flight-efficient and environmentally friendly conditions”.

Although the issue of aviation regulation hasn’t been at the heart of Brexit discussions, nor does it represent the reason why many British citizens voted to leave the European Union, if there’s no Brexit deal the UK would automatically go crashing out of all EU agreements, including the Single European Sky.


The UK’s Sun newspaper’s front page states: “Irish PM: I’ll ban British planes as revenge for Brexit.”

The Taoiseach was answering questions on whether there were preparations for an aviation treaty in the event of a hard Brexit, or a no-deal scenario. After being pressed on whether they were already underway, he said that there was a focus on a Brexit deal between the EU and the UK.

His comment about “using other people’s sky”, was in reference to the Single European Sky policy, and the rules that would be implemented in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Although it would be possible for the UK to leave the European Union but remain in the Single European Sky, this would have to be agreed as part of a final Brexit deal, and would also be reliant on all other issues to be agreed upon to be implemented.

The Taoiseach told RTE One’s Six One News this week that the Irish government accepts that Brexit is going to happen. He said that while a ‘no deal’ Brexit is an unlikely scenario, the government had to prepare for that possibility.

The Taoiseach was not making a threat on behalf of the Irish government, but was stating the policy of the European Union, of which Ireland is a member state. Therefore we rate this claim FALSE. 

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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