Irish PM Varadkar hails May for ‘honouring promise’ to avoid hard border

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The Taoiseach has hailed Theresa May for “honouring her promise” to avoid a hard border in Ireland post-Brexit.

Leo Varadkar singled the Prime Minister out for praise as he made a statement in Dublin after the UK Cabinet backed the deal Mrs May has struck with the EU.

“For us the very notion of Brexit is unwelcome and brings adverse consequences.

“At the same time I want to acknowledge that these negotiations have been very tough and a difficult experience for everyone involved and, with this in mind, I want to acknowledge Prime Minister May’s integrity in honouring her promise to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and her commitment of avoiding a hard border.

“She has been true to her word.”

When the UK and EU jointly committed to avoiding a hard border last December, Mr Varadkar had described the assurances as “bullet proof”.

At the press conference in Government Buildings on Wednesday night, he was asked whether he would describe the draft text in similar terms.

“I think what I said last December what we had to do is to turn all of the commitments that were made into a legally binding text and an international treaty, and that’s what we have here today,” he said.

“So this is even stronger than what we had back in December, there is of course a bit of a way to go, there is the possibility this could be defeated in Westminster or even the European Parliament, but we’ve now turned a political promise into a legally binding treaty agreed to by the UK Government.”

Mr Varadkar, who described Wednesday’s developments as “one of the better days in politics”, said avoiding a hard border had been “one of the most difficult challenges” of the process.

He said the draft withdrawal agreement had fully spelt out the “backstop” arrangement that would apply in Ireland if a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise.

The Taoiseach said the EU and UK would establish a shared customs territory, with Northern Ireland applying some additional rules for goods to ensure a free-flowing border.

He made clear the backstop would remain in place “unless and until” a better solution is agreed.

“I firmly hope that we can achieve a better solution and we will be working strenuously to that end,” he said.

On the backstop’s review mechanism, Mr Varadkar stressed that any decision to end the measure could not be done “unilaterally”.

“It can only be taken jointly by the United Kingdom and the European Union,” he said.

He said the trading arrangements envisaged in the transition period were very welcome for Irish businesses trading with the UK.

“The confirmation the UK will facilitate the transit of goods to and from Ireland is also very welcome – this is the UK land bridge to our European markets,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said Ireland’s priorities throughout the Brexit negotiations had been protecting the peace process; maintaining the Common Travel Area on the island; maintaining Ireland’s place at the “heart of Europe”; and protecting jobs and the economy.

“On each of these priorities we have reached a satisfactory outcome today,” he said.

He said the draft text underpinned the “fundamental rights” enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged that DUP leader Arlene Foster was unhappy with the deal.

“There are sensitivities there and I certainly heard what Arlene had to say today, the DUP is the DUP, it’s a unionist party, it’s not going to be told what to do by the Irish government, but the door is always open and the phone is always on,” he said.

“I am always willing to speak to her or anyone in the DUP to offer any clarifications or any assurances that they may wish to have.”

Asked what happens if the draft agreement is not voted through Westminster, Mr Varadkar said: “I think what we have in the joint political declaration is an outline of what the future relationship could look like and should this deal be agreed by Westminster and the European Parliament we can then begin negotiations on that future relationship.

“It is a very ambitious one, one that involves a deep and close relationship between the EU and the UK and something that we look forward to working on during the transition phase – if we get to it.

“It’s impossible for me to predict how the vote in Westminster will go, but I do think people have consistently underestimated the mettle and courage of Prime Minister May, so let’s see how she gets on, obviously if it’s defeated in Westminster, it’s hard to know where we go from there, as others have said it’s maybe hard Brexit or no hard Brexit at all, but that’s a decision for the UK Parliament to make.”

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