Could Johnson have the answer to solve the Brexit deadlock?
Prime Minister discusses ‘all-ireland’ plan in attempt to remove backstop and satisfy the DUP
BORIS JOHNSON is considering plans for a regulatory border in the Irish Sea as he seeks a new Brexit “divorce” deal with the EU.
The Prime Minister wants an allireland zone for checks on most goods crossing between the north and south of the island as part of a deal that would remove the need for a Northern Irish backstop.
The idea, which does not cover tariffs on goods, was discussed with the DUP yesterday during talks in Downing Street, at which Mr Johnson also offered a “Stormont lock” to ensure Northern Ireland would be able to veto any future changes to the arrangement.
It also emerged yesterday that Mr Johnson had ordered detailed feasibility studies on the possibility of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, a project he first suggested when he was foreign secretary.
He has asked the Treasury to draw up costings for the 21-mile crossing, while the Department of Transport has looked at engineering problems, which include unexploded Second World War munitions in the sea.
Mr Johnson is under renewed pressure to reach a deal with the EU after Parliament rejected for a second time his plans for an October election to win a mandate for a no-deal exit on Oct 31.
During an hour-long meeting yesterday with Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, Mr Johnson discussed an all-ireland zone for livestock and agricultural goods, which make up the majority of trade across the border.
The scheme would only apply to health and regulatory checks, rather than tariffs, but would nevertheless create a border in the Irish Sea for agricultural goods passing between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
The DUP is understood to have been receptive to the idea, which would potentially expand on the current health checks on livestock that are made when animals cross the Irish Sea, but insisted there must be no divergence in tariffs between Northern Ireland and the mainland.
Mr Johnson believes the problem of tariffs can be solved by so-called “alternative arrangements”, including trusted trader schemes and electronic pre-authorisation of goods.
He also revived the idea of a Northern Irish veto through a “Stormont lock”, though this would mean the Assembly, which has been suspended for more than two years because of disagreements between unionists and nationalists, would have to be reinstated during any Brexit transition period.
Downing Street last night strongly denied claims by Ireland’s EU commissioner, Phil Hogan, that Mr Johnson was moving towards the idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop, rather than the all-uk backstop contained in the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
Mr Hogan, who was nominated yesterday to lead the EU’S future negotiations with Britain over a trade deal, claimed there was “movement happening on both sides” over the issue of cross-border trade and that Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, who met Mr Johnson in Dublin on Monday, wanted to “revisit” the idea of a Northern Irelandonly backstop. Mr Hogan told the Irish Times: “Mr Johnson has made a proposal ... talking about an all-ireland food zone. That is certainly a clear indication of divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the EU and the rest of the UK. If we can
build on that we certainly might get closer to one another in terms of a possible outcome.”
Mr Hogan added that he was hopeful “the penny is finally dropping” in Britain. He said Mr Johnson had made clear he would accept “some level of divergence” with Northern Ireland, the “first time this has been spoken about by a British Prime Minister”.
The commissioner said the two sides “certainly might get closer” to a deal if they could “build on” the current proposal. But No 10 said Mr Johnson was not prepared to cut Northern Ireland adrift by agreeing an all-ireland trade zone for all goods.
Speaking after her meeting with Mr Johnson, Ms Foster said: “A sensible deal between the United Kingdom and European Union, which respects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, is the best way forward for everyone. We were encouraged by the tone and language in Dublin on Monday. During today’s meeting, the Prime Minister confirmed his rejection of the Northern Irelandonly backstop and his commitment to securing a deal which works for the entire United Kingdom as well as our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.”
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister is 100 per cent committed to getting a deal which works for the UK – and all of the UK – and abolishes the anti-democratic backstop.”
Boris Johnson attended a Year Four history class during a visit to Pimlico primary school in London yesterday. The Prime Minister also held talks with the DUP in Downing Street