Hopes are growing for a Brexit deal following breakthrough talks between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Boris Johnson, with both leaders saying they can “see a pathway” to agreement before the October 31 deadline.
Focus will today switch to Brussels where EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is due to meet UK Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay.
In a joint statement following three hours of talks, Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson said they would now “reflect further” on their talks while officials would continue to “engage intensively”.
The cautiously upbeat statement comes at the end of a week marked by acrimonious exchanges between London, Dublin, and Brussels in which negotiations appeared close to collapse.
After the private meeting, the Taoiseach expressed confidence that a Brexit deal can now be reached before the end of the month.
Mr Varadkar described the talks as “very positive and very promising” and suggested that “what’s happened today would be sufficient to allow negotiations to resume”.
However, the EU Task Force, which was fully briefed by Irish officials on the developments yesterday, will now consider the details before deciding on whether formal talks can restart.
Details of the meeting, which took place in Thornton Manor in The Wirral, had been closely guarded given the sensitivity of talks and the limited time remaining to hammer out a deal.
At John Lennon Airport afterwards, Mr Varadkar said: “On the timeline question, I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement to have a treaty agreed to allow the UK to leave the EU in orderly fashion and to have that done by the end of October. But there’s many a slip between cup and lip, and lots of things are not in my control.”
It is believed significant progress was made on regulatory alignment, the Stormont Assembly consent, and the future relationship between both countries.
It is understood senior HM Revenue and Customs officials were summoned from London at the last minute and arrived mid-way into the meeting, indicating that there has been movement on the issue of customs checks.
Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson met alone before the teams of officials, including Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior advisor, were brought in.
While Mr Varadkar remained tight-lipped on new proposals tabled or concessions made by Mr Johnson, he stressed that the Irish position remains that there cannot be a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We must continue to have a situation whereby the all-island economy can continue to deepen and function well,” said Mr Varadkar.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin last night said he was “pleased that the megaphone diplomacy has been replaced by proper and serious Brexit discussion”.
Fears of a hard Brexit had been growing, with Mr Johnson sticking firm to the line that he would leave with or without a deal at the end of this month.
Last-ditch proposals sent by Mr Johnson to EU Commission president Jean-Claude Junker last week were quickly dismissed by European leaders as not going far enough.
Despite yesterday’s optimism, the Taoiseach said more work is still needed to resolve all issues.
“The first is the issue of consent and democracy, ensuring that any long-term arrangement that applies to Northern Ireland has the consent of the people in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“The second is the issue of customs, ensuring that there is no customs border between North and south.”