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'Significant gaps remain' after Boris Johnson's meeting with Leo Varadkar

“This problem of Brexit was not, to be perfectly frank, a conundrum that Ireland ever wished for,” Johnson said in Dublin today.

Image: Leah Farrell

Updated Sep 9th 2019, 12:35 PM

NO BREAKTHROUGHS WERE made in a brief Dublin meeting between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. 

The two leaders met one-on-one for more than a half hour at Dublin’s Government Buildings this morning, before meeting for another 30 minutes with their respective delegations. 

“While they agreed that the discussions are at an early stage, common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain,” a joint statement said. 

Speaking alongside Varadkar at a joint press appearance ahead of their meeting, Johnson said that there’s “an ideal” amount of time left to find a solution to the Brexit impasse. 

He referred to the 30-day time period mentioned by Angela Merkel at a meeting between the pair last month, saying she was “totally right”. 

Both the Irish and UK leaders had played down hopes of any breakthrough at their meeting, as they addressed the media – but Varadkar added that he was hopeful today could provide the start of a solution.  

“We haven’t received such proposals,” Varadkar said of possible backstop alternatives, maintaining a line repeated by the EU and Ireland since Johnson became Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Johnson said that the UK government had “an abundance” of such proposals, and admitted that his recent suggestion of an all-island agrifood zone was not a catch-all solution.

He said that he “acknowledged” the complexities involved and the “sensitivities evoked by the very concept of a border”, but concluded that “at the core of each problem you find practical issues that can be resolved” with “sufficient energy and a spirit of compromise”.

“I have one message that I want to land with you today, Leo, and that is that I want to find a deal,” Johnson said.

“I want to get a deal. Like you, I’ve looked carefully at no deal and assessed its consequences, both for our country and yours, and yes we could do it.

But, be in no doubt that that outcome would be a failure of state-craft for which we would all be responsible… 

Although Johnson admitted “that this problem of Brexit was not, to be perfectly frank, a conundrum that Ireland ever wished for”, he also maintained that “we must get Brexit done” and that the UK must leave the EU on 31 October, “or else I fear that permanent damage will be done to confidence in our democracy in the UK”.

Northern Ireland

Swerving two questions asked of him on when he last visited the border, Johnson said that he doesn’t underestimate the “technical problems and political sensitivities”, and said that he would “never ever institute” checks on the Irish border – adding that he hoped the EU would reciprocate. 

Can we ensure that we continue to have unchecked movement at the border of goods and people and indeed cattle? I think the answer is yes… 
Can we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its particulars? Again I say the answer is yes, and our commitment to the peace process is unshakeable.
Can we protect the economic unity of the island of Ireland and the gains that Ireland has won through its membership of the EU single market? And again I think the answer is yes…

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Johnson said that along with “getting Brexit done” by November, efforts needed to be put into restoring the Stormont Executive, which fell apart in January 2017. 

When asked about direct rule in Northern Ireland if Stormont hasn’t resumed and there’s a no-deal Brexit, Varadkar crucially said that the Irish government would oppose it, as it would “contravene the St Andrew’s Agreement”.

In an attempt at goodwill, Johnson referred to his and Varadkar’s predecessors, “who put aside differences, who found compromises, who took our countries forwards together in circumstances far tougher than now”.

Varadkar said that the Good Friday Agreement was “proof that old foes can come together to deal with the most intractable of problems”. 

Johnson is to return to Westminster for a debate and vote on whether to hold a general election, which will be held this afternoon.

- With reporting from Daragh Brophy 

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