Ireland’s two senior politicians are on the same page over the timetable for progress on the Brexit border question, the Taoiseach has insisted.
Leo Varadkar said he and deputy premier Simon Coveney both agreed that “substantive progress” on resolving the crucial outstanding issue was required prior to June’s European Council summit in Brussels.
The Taoiseach denied claims from opposition parties in the Dail that the politicians were sending out mixed messages. Mr Varadkar has previously stated that he would rather have the “right deal” at October’s EU summit, than “any deal” in June.
Tanaiste Mr Coveney has repeatedly identified June as the key date in the negotiating process.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Labour leader Brendan Howlin both raised concern during Taoiseach’s questions in the Dail that the two senior Fine Gael ministers were at odds.
Mr Martin said there was “significant confusion”.
Mr Varadkar denied there was confusion at the heart of the Irish government.
He said it was becoming the “fashion” to hunt out potential differences between him and Mr Coveney.
“Both the Tanaiste and I are both of the same view” the Taoiseach told the Dail.
Mr Coveney, while speaking to reporters in Northern Ireland on Wednesday afternoon, reiterated that he expected “significant progress” by then.
He added that he was keen for there to be a framework agreement on a future trade deal between the EU and the UK by October, but said he did not think it realistic that an agreement would be completed by then.
He told reporters: “I don’t think it’s realistic to suggest that there would be a free trade agreement in all of its detail signed off on by October. I don’t think anybody expects that.”
The UK and EU remain at loggerheads on how to maintain a free flowing border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when the UK leaves the EU.
While both sides signed up to an agreed text in December that would guarantee an alignment of many trading regulations north and south, even if a wider UK/EU trading deal did not materialise, the UK latterly objected to how the EU translating that “backstop” option into the legal text of a proposed withdrawal agreement.
The two sides are still locked in negotiations as they try to hammer out a way to translate the backstop option into the withdrawal deal.
The impasse has raised questions over whether an agreement will be possible if the UK government maintains its position on leaving the customs union.
UK Brexit Secretary David Davis is confident a technology solution can be found to maintain an open border.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald branded Mr Davis’s stance on technology as “the stuff of Alice in Wonderland”.
Mr Varadkar told the Dail he did not share Mr Davis’s view.
“I am not aware of the existence of the technology that Secretary of State Davis seems to believe exists,” he said.
“We have always said there cannot be a technical solution to the Irish border challenge – it requires a political and legal solution and that’s what we have been working towards.”
Mrs McDonald also asked Mr Varadkar to respond to a media report that claimed EU negotiators were concerned that the backstop plan agreed in December was inherently flawed and, if implemented, would undermine the European single market.
The Taoiseach said he had contacted his lead official in the negotiation process about The Times report and he said he did not recognise that characterisation of the EU’s position.