By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith and Elaine Loughlin
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned British prime minister Theresa May her plan to review the Northern Ireland backstop within three months of any Brexit deal being signed is “not worth the paper it’s written on”.
Mr Varadkar shot down London’s claim of a Brexit breakthrough, despite raising “alarm bells” among opposition parties last night by confirming that Ireland is open to a later “review mechanism” of a backstop he said last year was “cast-iron” and “bulletproof”.
Responding to reports in weekend newspapers that British Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has pushed for the right for London to scrap the backstop within three months of it being signed, Mr Varadkar said the move is simply not an option.
Citing Government and EU statements insisting a backstop can only be a backstop if it is by definition not time-limited, Mr Varadkar said Mr Raab’s proposal will never be considered — saying accepting it would mean the backstop “isn’t worth the paper it is written on”.
“As a Government, we are working very hard to get an agreement, ideally by the end of the year, but one thing we can’t countenance is any idea that there would be a three-month limit on the backstop,” he said.
He was supported yesterday by Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, who tweeted that a “time-limited backstop would never be agreed to” by Ireland or the EU.
Similarly, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told reporters in Brussels that “the British government have given commitments twice now in the past year” and that it will be held to those agreements.
However, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin last night expressed fears that Ireland’s position is changing after Mr Varadkar said in a separate statement that he is willing to “consider” a “review mechanism” of the backstop should it be signed off on.
In a statement after a phonecall between the Taoiseach and Ms May, a spokesperson said Mr Varadkar “indicated an openness to consider proposals for a review” of the backstop once it is signed — on condition that it is only replaced by what Ireland considers a better deal.
In a separate three-paragraph statement, a spokesperson for Ms May twice said the backstop is “temporary”.
While it is believed that Mr Varadkar’s comments are intended to allow breathing space for negotiators in Brussels to attempt to agree a deal, they drew opposition anger last night.
Speaking on RTE Radio, Fianna Fáil Brexit spokeswoman Lisa Chambers said “alarm bells” should be going off across Ireland over the comments, while Sinn Féin insisted Mr Varadkar must stand firm and ensure the backstop does not change under any circumstances.
The developments come before a crucial British cabinet meeting today and amid ongoing rumours that Mr Raab may quit unless his three-month backstop review deal is considered.