Confusion over the state of the Brexit negotiations increases anxiety as May’s cabinet prepares to decide on a formula

Civil society in both islands  looking on anxiously at contrasting stories about the state of the Brexit negotiations are speaking out. Persistent fears of a hard border has prompted a group of nationalists to  approach Leo Varadkar  to protect northern nationalists’ rights. This the second appeal of its kind in a year.

Latest 4pm  Leo Varadkar said this afternoon Ireland is willing to consider proposals for a review clause in relation to the backstop for the Irish border. The backstop is designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit.

In a statement released following an earlier phone call with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Varadkar said that the outcome of any such review “could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop”.

He recalled to Mrs May “the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply ‘unless and until’ alternative arrangements are agreed”.

Mr Varadkar said the Government cannot countenance any limit on a backstop.

He said that a backstop with a three-month time limit  as suggested byUK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab “would not be worth the paper it is written on.”

This is surely worth exploring. Why should not the UK agree to check out with the EU the acceptability of any new free trade agreements it wants to make as part of the final deal? Brexiteers will have to make up their minds if they want a deal or not

More than 1,500 of the UK’s top lawyers have urged Theresa May and MPs to back a second Brexit referendum, saying that “democratic government is not frozen in time”.

The latest in Ireland, which was sent on Friday and published in the Irish News today as a two-page advert, has the largest number of signatures and is an all-island endeavour.

The letter welcomes Mr Varadkar’s pledge to defend the interests of Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland through the Brexit process but blames the Stormont powersharing impasse, which has seen the absence of devolved government for almost two years, for “denying” certain “rights” to people north of the border.

It highlights Democratic Unionist opposition to same-sex marriage and an Irish Language Act as two key issues of concern.

The letter adds: “As you know these rights are now taken for granted by citizens in other parts of these islands.

“The British Conservative government has rendered itself unable to effect any progress on these rights issues due to its dependence on the DUP.

“Brexit threatens to deepen the rights crisis and there is a real danger of serious erosion of current guarantees.”

On Brexit, the letter raises concerns about access to free healthcare in EU countries; a potential hike to the cost of attending university in the Irish Republic; and the fact Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland will no longer be represented in the European Parliament.

The letter continues: “There is a very real potential that partition could be reinforced, and our country and our people further divided.

“This is a source of grave concern to all of us.

The roller coaster of briefings on the fringe the negotiations are unlikely to have given them much comfort. It seems that Dominic Raab, the cabinet minister who nominally speaks for Brexit policy, is at the centre of cabinet disagreement over a formula for a deal. If this is true it shows he’s  no more in control of the negotiations than  his predecessor David Davis was, who resigned over the Chequers proposals. Raab seems to have been doing a bit of freelancing. Peter Foster the European correspondent of the Brexiteer -leaning Daily Telegraph reports that Raab, who pledged at Stormont last week that a Brexit deal would not jeopardise UK integrity, “has privately demanded the right to pull Britain out of the EU’s Irish backstop after just three months, setting back the prospect of clinching a Brexit divorce deal this week”.

The hardline pitch by the Brexit Secretary to the Irish government early last week is understood to have “stunned” Irish officials and exposed the continued deep divisions in Cabinet over how to prosecute the Brexit talks. Mr Raab’s proposal was put to the Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney in a private meeting in London last Tuesday, but three days later was apparently contradicted by David Lidington, the UK’s de facto deputy prime minister, on a visit to Dublin.

The divisions emerged as Theresa May’s top Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, prepares to go to Brussels to clinch an in-principle Brexit divorce deal this week.

Reports in the Sunday Times that Mrs May had already concluded a “secret deal” were dismissed to The Telegraph by negotiators from both sides on Sunday night. “If anything, things are now going backwards.”

The FT has the EU reaction.

The Brexit secretary’s proposal, reported in the Daily Telegraph, would be controversial. The paper quoted an EU source as saying: “The idea that an alternative arrangement that delivers no hard border in Ireland would be ready in three months is totally unrealistic.” But the Financial Times has been told that Mr Raab has written to Mrs May urging her to support the plan and claiming that both the Irish government and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, might be able to accept it.

Mr Raab’s letter was greeted with disbelief by some senior members of Mrs May’s administration, who believe that the Brexit secretary is promoting a plan that will never fly in Brussels. “There’s a bit of a view that Raab wrote the letter to give himself some cover with the Eurosceptics,” said one person briefed on the note.

Theresa May spent Sunday ringing round the cabinet assuring them she wouldn’t try to bounce them into supporting a deal at tomorrow’s cabinet.

Strangely enough, the Irish government seem to be more optimistic about a successful formula  than the British, according to Fiach Kelly deputy political editor of the Irish Times. Will they be able to reassure the northern nationalists?

The final deal on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is set to include a backstop that will apply to the entire United Kingdom, but will have additional measures for Northern Ireland to ensure there is no hard border.

The Irish Times understands a common view is emerging in Dublin, London and Brussels on the contentious issue.

A Northern Ireland-specific backstop – a guarantee to avoid a hard border even if future trade talks fail – would effectively give way to one that would apply across the entirety of Britain for customs only.

However, the withdrawal agreement would also contain additional measures that would apply on the Irish Border. These are understood to include some extra customs rules as well as rules to ensure the North’s regulations remain in alignment with EU standards.

A senior government source said such “add-ons” do not “change the fact that Northern Ireland remains in the customs territory of the UK”.

“You have one backstop – the main element of which is a UK-wide customs union – to be extended with additional measures for Northern Ireland.

Is Raab  fighting a rearguard action against  his own prime minister’s deal? Or are we getting fake news? Surely not.  But the taioseach is surely  stating the obvious.

“The United Kingdom in many ways is a divided kingdom. People are split 50-50 on whether they want to leave the European Union or not. The cabinet seems divided, the government seems divided, parliament is divided and that has made it very difficult to come to an agreement,

“I’d much prefer to have a United Kingdom and united country to be our partner in these negotiations but we don’t, so we have to work through.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London