Ireland’s prime minister has said he expects a Brexit deal on the Northern Irish border “in the next couple of weeks”.
Speaking at a meeting of British and Irish officials on the Isle of Man, Leo Varadkar warned, however, that a deal was still “not guaranteed”.
It comes after a leaked letter from Theresa May to Northern Irish unionists in the DUP warned that plans for a border down the Irish sea could be included in the withdrawal agreement.
Addressing reporters at the British-Irish Council, Mr Varadkar said: “In terms of the backstop what’s envisaged is that it would be there as a protocol to the withdrawal agreement.
“But I think when we talk about the backstop we should always recall what the objective is and the most important thing for me is the objective – to give everyone in Northern Ireland and Ireland the assurance that a hard border will not develop between Northern and South no matter what else might happen in the year ahead.
“That is why we’re seeking one that is legally operative and one that gives us that guarantee that is necessary. I think we are at a sensitive point in the negotiations. A successful outcome is not guaranteed, but I think it is possible in the next couple of weeks and probably with that in mind the less said the better about the detail of that.”
Despite the contents of Friday’s leaked letter, David Lidington, the cabinet minister attending the summit in Douglas for the UK, said Britain would not accept “carving out” Northern Ireland from the rest of the nation.
“On the commitments that were made in the joint report of December 2017 and all the various commitments that were made in that report – the prime minister’s always been very clear, that we won’t accept something that involves sort of carving out Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.
The dispute centres around the Irish backstop, a legal mechanism to prevent a hard border from arising on the island of Ireland in order to preserve the Good Friday Agreement.
The EU is insisting that the UK sign up to a policy that would keep Northern Ireland aligned to the EU’s single market and customs regulations, which could mean checks between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Ms May has long resisted the demand, but the leaked letter suggests she may now acquiesce – though she maintains it will never be used. The prime minister has also devised another backstop that would effectively keep the whole UK in a customs union with the EU if no future trade deal removes the need for it.
Speculation is rife about the status of negotiations following officials’ decision to descend into a communications “tunnel”, cutting themselves off from the outside world. Hard information about the talks has been replaced by conflicting reports about how a situation is progressing.
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