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Dublin: 15°C Wednesday 10 August 2022

Bin the backstop or pay us off? Here's what the Conservative leadership hopefuls have said about Ireland

Ten Conservative MPs want to be the next prime minister. Here’s how they all have said they’ll solve the Irish “issue”.

THERE ARE 10 Conservative MPs all vying to be the next leader of the party and the next British prime minister, to succeed Theresa May.

Whoever is chosen will take up the reins in the midst of a crisis – Brexit woes and electoral woes being chief among them.

All 10 claim they will be the one to “sort out” Brexit once and for all, and for that exact reason, Irish eyes will be watching keenly who is chosen. The path they choose out of the EU will have major consequences here.

Most pertinently, the backstop – the safety net designed to prevent the installation of a hard border in Northern Ireland by guaranteeing it stays “aligned” with the customs and trading rules of Ireland and the EU – is seen as unacceptable by the vast majority of candidates.

Many have pledged to cut the Irish backstop out of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, despite the EU and Ireland repeatedly saying this is not an option. 

So how do each of the candidates feel about Ireland? Many have spoken at length on the backstop and other Irish issues, but some are tackling the issue only recently in a bid to show their leadership credentials.

Let’s take a look. 

Boris Johnson

Britain Conservatives Source: Frank Augstein/PA Images

So what does the favourite to be the new Tory leader think of the border issue and Ireland?

He has consistently rallied against the backstop and played down the significance of the current soft border in Northern Ireland.

Dating back to his time as foreign secretary, the occasionally gaffe prone former London Mayor was often derided for some of his comments on Ireland and the border.

Back in 2017, before it became clear how this was all going to go, Johnson was speaking quite positively, however. In September of that year, he said solving the Irish border issue was “not beyond the wit of man”. 

Perhaps indicative of how his own officials felt about Boris – although this was strenuously denied by the government – Sky News reported in November 2017 that the UK Foreign Office told Irish officials “not to listen” to Boris Johnson ahead of his visit for talks with Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

‘Beyond belief’

In February 2018, Johnson drew consternation when he likened the challenge of avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland to the boundaries between different boroughs of London.

He called it a “very relevant comparison”

In June of that year, an audio recording obtained by Buzzfeed News was released where Johnson said it’s “beyond belief” that relations in Northern Ireland were dictating the Brexit debate.

He said said that concerns about the Irish border were “pure millennium bug stuff” and referenced “planes falling from the sky”.

It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way.

“We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.”

EU colony

After resigning as foreign secretary, Johnson repeatedly attacked Theresa May’s policies, saying in October 2018 that the Irish backstop would make the UK “an EU colony”

Speaking at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin in January, Johnson claimed that “nobody will implement” a hard border on the island of Ireland

Johnson said that there are technological solutions to the border issue that have not been explored.

“Nobody will implement it. We should not abandon attempts to find a technological solution to the border without even trying,” he said during his speech. Such technological solutions have been repeatedly rejected by Ireland and the EU, both stating they don’t yet exist.

Speaking on other matters in Northern Ireland, Johnson was heavily criticised in March for suggesting that if soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday were charged with murder, it would be for political reasons

Consistently railing against the backstop and flirting with the idea of leaving without a deal, Johnson said in an interview with the Sunday Times last weekend that, as prime minister, he would refuse to pay Britain’s £39 billion divorce bill until the EU agrees better withdrawal terms.

The ex-London mayor also signalled he would scrap the much-despised backstop and try to settle the border issue once London and Brussels were negotiating their future relationship.

Sajid Javid

Tory leadership race Source: David Mirzoeff/PA Images

Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s most noteworthy comments on Ireland came just in the past week, with a suggestion that the UK must spend big to solve the issue.

In an interview with the Mail On Sunday, Javid said Britain should pay the Irish government half a billion pounds to break the Brexit deadlock over the Northern Ireland border issue.

Citing the UK signing the Good Friday Agreement, he said Britain has a moral duty to pay for a new border arrangement, warning it will take “hundreds of millions of euros, no one really knows because it hasn’t been done before”.

Javid wants the money to be used to set up new technological solutions along the border that will mean the UK can leave the single market and customs union but also maintain no hard border on the island Ireland. These kinds of solutions have been suggested by many, but detail is so far lacking on what they could be. 

At the beginning of this month, he also indicated that he wants to renegotiate the backstop, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr that “Ireland is key”. 

“It’s the tail that wags the dog on this,” he said. “We need to make sure that we can do more to build that goodwill with Ireland, to give them that confidence.”

Javid has consistently railed against the backstop, and also indicated his belief that border checks could be done with “existing technology” back in February.

Michael Gove

The Times CEO Summit Source: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

Gove’s position on Ireland is hard to pin down.

In the year 2000, he wrote a paper called Northern Ireland: The Price of Peace, in which he said that Prime Minister Tony Blair had “capitulated” to the IRA, the BBC reported earlier this month. He also called the Good Friday Agreement a “mortal stain”, and a “rigged referendum”. 

In the past week, he has defended those comments, saying he was “unionist to his bootstraps” and had worked hard in Northern Ireland and Ireland to bring people together.

On the other hand, he backed May’s withdrawal agreement during the doomed House of Commons votes.

Last December, he retweeted an article from the Daily Telegraph urging people to read it and saying it’s why the prime minister’s deal should be supported. That article led with the line that the backstop “isn’t actually that bad for Britain”.

As it comes to the crunch, however, it’s clear he’s no longer a backstop fan pledging as he launched his leadership campaign on Monday that he’d put a “full stop to the backstop”, the Times Ireland reported

Jeremy Hunt

Tory leadership race Source: Victoria Jones/PA Images

The current foreign secretary is another candidate who wants the backstop gone. 

Hunt was a supporter of May with talk of “compromise” as she tried to get her withdrawal agreement through. 

Around Christmas time, he was calling for more assurances from the EU that the backstop would only be temporary, telling BBC Radio 4 that “we can get this through, [we] absolutely can”.

Like many of his rivals for the leadership, however, Hunt’s stance has hardened. He has even claimed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel told him the EU was willing to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal deal.

Speaking to Sky News at the weekend, Hunt said a technological solution was “doable” but “we have to find the mechanisms to deal with the situation”.

Andrea Leadsom

Tory leadership race Source: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

Unlike some of her other colleagues, Leadsom doesn’t want to ditch the backstop and Ireland hasn’t really featured in her campaign at all. 

The former House of Commons leader doesn’t think it’s workable to get a deal with the EU that drops it so she wants a “managed no deal” instead, that proposes a “virtual border” solution using the aforementioned technology. 

She wants Parliament to pass through some aspects of May’s withdrawal deal and bring the UK out of the EU at the end of October. 

These aspects would include ensuring the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit. She also wants a summit with EU leaders in September to discuss the “sensible” measures for a “smooth” exit.

Speaking to Sky News this week, she said: “Essentially, I believe the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is dead. The EU won’t change it and parliament won’t vote for it and we have to leave the EU at the end of October.”

Dominic Raab

Tory leadership race Source: David Mirzoeff/PA Images

Raab was a backbencher until the 2015 general election, and a number of different ministerial positions before he was promoted to Brexit Secretary in July 2018. He stepped down from this role in November. 

The former Brexit secretary famously resigned because he was dissatisfied with a deal he helped to negotiate.

He is also well-known for admitting he hadn’t read the Good Friday Agreement in full, saying that he’s used it as “a reference tool” during Brexit negotiations, but that it isn’t “a cracking read”.

In quitting the Cabinet last November, Raab aid he believed the regulatory regime proposed for Northern Ireland presented a “very real threat” to the United Kingdom’s integrity.

Raab added that he was opposed to “an indefinite backstop arrangement” to guarantee the Irish border remains free-flowing, saying the EU would hold “a veto over our ability to exit”.

His stance on Brexit has hardened ever since.

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A Raab premiership may prove difficult for the Irish government. In January of this year, the government rubbished claims from Raab that the Taoiseach leaked inaccurate information about him to the media.

He claimed that Varadkar leaked the information in a way designed to misinterpret him, but the adviser to Tánaiste Simon Coveney dismissed the allegation as “pure spoof”.

Raab also told a Commons Select Committee that the Irish  government took “a trenchant line on the backstop”, and that it was in “a very difficult position now” blaming it on the “particularly strong political position taken by the Taoiseach”.

He has believed there’s a “compromise” and a way out of the border issue, if the Irish government was willing to concede some ground. 

“There’s three ways of dealing with it: you either change the entire paradigm so you don’t have a legislative alignment approach; you have an operation- and technology-based approach; or you limit through time or an exit mechanism, the legislative alignment application,” he said in January.

Raab also claimed that a top EU official said that “Northern Ireland is the price to pay for Brexit”.‘s FactCheck rated this claim unproven.

If Raab were to become prime minister, a hard Brexit – and all that would bring for Ireland – becomes eminently more likely.

Rory Stewart

Britain Politics Source: Alastair Grant/PA Images

The international development secretary is by far seen as the most moderate candidate amongst the hopefuls.

He’s also supportive of the current deal – including the backstop, saying it’s unlikely the EU would countenance any deal without it. 

In a video on his Twitter last week, he spoke to farmers in Northern Ireland about the serious effects a no-deal Brexit would have on them.

He stands as the only one of the 10 contenders who wants to get the current deal left over from Theresa May through parliament.

Stewart has told other candidates: “Stop ignoring the Irish border and all that it means for Northern Ireland. And tell me how what you propose is going to work on the Irish border.

Stop pretending you are going to get alternative arrangements agreed by Brussels ‘over the next few months’. Stop. You won’t. Admit it.

It’s fair to say that the kind of Brexit Stewart is proposing is the one that – while any Brexit will affect Ireland negatively – would impact Ireland the least.

It would allow frictionless trade to continue for the next few years, with the insurance mechanism of the backstop if future talks with the EU and UK fail.

Matt Hancock

Cabinet meeting Source: David Mirzoeff/PA Images

The health secretary wants a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and he’s not completely given up on the backstop just yet.

Hancock wants a time-limited backstop, and says he would aim to work with the EU to find a “long-term, administrative and technological solution”. 

He wants to work with the Irish government to find the solutions, but it’s not clear how successful this would be. 

Esther McVey

Tory leadership race Source: David Mirzoeff/PA Images

A hardline Brexiteer, McVey’s stance is similar to Leadsom’s – ditch the backstop, leave without a deal in October. 

Last year, she was insisting the backstop must be dropped and said in December that May should’ve gone back to the EU to get a better deal. 

The former work and pensions secretary was roundly criticised in recent weeks for claiming that there would be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit because an “invisible” option would be in place instead.

She’s hit headlines this week for being blanked by former colleague Lorraine Kelly on ITV breakfast TV.

Mark Harper

Britain Conservatives Source: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Images

The former Conservative chief whip also wants the backstop gone. He’s backing the “Malthouse” proposal that was floated in the House of Commons at the beginning of this year but ultimately came to nothing.

Essentially, it would replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” but it’s not immediately clear what these are.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph last year, Harper said he’d seen the border first hand in Fermanagh and said current arrangements had to be maintained. In it, he talks about the technology that could make the border situation work, saying “this can be catered for by international practices that already exist”. 

Speaking now, he says that “sensible cooperation” could resolve the border issue. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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