Boris Johnson met yesterday with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin for important discussions on Brexit.

First published in September 2019.

Amid protests against Brexit and a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Boris Johnson posed for photos with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin before Monday morning’s breakfast discussions on Brexit. Johnson asserted that a good Brexit deal was still possible by the time of the EU Summit, in mid-October.

The Taoiseach said protecting peace on the island of Ireland was one of his top priorities, saying that avoiding the return of a hard border and protecting the single market are the Irish Government’s top priorities, hence the need for the backstop until a workable alternative is found. “The people of this island, North and South, need to know that their livelihoods, their security and their sense of identity will not be put at risk as a consequence of a hard Brexit,” he added.

Mr Johnson stressed a breakthrough was unlikely during their first meeting, but said he was bringing ideas on ways to resolve the backstop to ensure the UK leaves the EU on 31 October with a satisfactory deal for all sides, and at the same time upholding the Good Friday Agreement, maintaining unchecked movement of people and goods across the Irish Border and protecting the economic unity of the island of Ireland.

Giving little detail, the joint statement issued after the meeting said, “Common ground was established in some areas, though significant gaps remain.” Both agreed that negotiations on any Brexit deal would be between the UK and the EU, whilst both reaffirmed their joint commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and restoration of power-sharing in Stormont.

Mr Johnson promised the UK would not impose border checks, but refused to be drawn on the particulars of any plan to avoid this scenario. The idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop is one of Johnson’s main talking points with regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland seeing Northern Ireland diverging from the rest of the UK. Johnson has raised this idea in recent days.

In a secret dossier prepared for the EU Exit Negotiations Board, dated 28 August, the Government feels the “most practical” and “deliverable” alternative to the backstop was an all-island economy for food and agricultural products similar to that in the current withdrawal agreement, but creating a regulatory barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

During a speech in Yorkshire last week, Mr Johnson said that Ian Paisley once said that the people of Northern Ireland were British, but the cattle were Irish. “And in that idea, there is the germ of a solution to the question of frictionless movement across the Northern Irish border.” Johnson seemed to support an agri-food regulatory regime in Northern Ireland that would see it stay in alignment with the EU.

Jonathan Powell, a former adviser to Tony Blair during the peace talks, said Ian Paisley attempted to avoid the slaughter of Northern Irish cattle during the 2005 foot and mouth crisis saying: “Our people may be British, but our cows are Irish.”

Johnson said the UK will not be erecting any border checks in the hope that other sectors could follow, although he added that that “depends entirely on democratic control by the people of the United Kingdom.”

Although this latest proposal seems to cross the DUP’s red line of having a border in the Irish Sea, Johnson’s references to Rev Paisley – the DUP’s founding father – are seen as an attempt to reassure the party, especially in the light of his reliance on its goodwill in the light of the current confidence and supply arrangement.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds welcomed “remarks of the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic (last week) in which he indicated that in the event of a no-deal there will be no checks or infrastructure at the border.”

“That’s very, very welcome – we should build on that, in that there is room for progress to get a deal, which we all want.”

Sinn Fein councillor Dessie Ellis, who stood amongst a crowd of around 100 protesters, said: “We’re here today to protest against Boris Johnson’s visit to Dublin. We want to send out a strong message that we will not stand for a hard border or any border.”

“People living in the border region will suffer immensely if a border comes back so the Taoiseach needs to stand strong, stand his ground and give that message from the Irish people.”

“I think this visit from Boris Johnson is all about the optics. I would be very surprised if he delivers anything because he has been spoofing all throughout his negotiations with the EU so why is he going to treat the Irish government any differently?”

Mr Varadkar said that a single agricultural zone would not be enough to facilitate the free movement of goods. “It’s not enough on its own ... I think we’d need a single Irish economic zone, or whatever you’d want to call it, to cover more than agriculture and food.”

Mr Varadkar said no alternatives to the backstop have yet been received but added he was confident the two leaders could find some common ground.🔷


  • “Brexit: Johnson tells Varadkar a no-deal Brexit ‘would be a failure’.” – Pat Leahy, Irish Times, 9 September 2019.
  • “Paisley’s ‘Irish cows’ quip may be beginnings of a solution to backstop issue, PM suggests.” – Steven Alexander and Kevin Doyle, Belfast Telegraph, 6 September 2019.
  • “Appearing alongside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mr Johnson laughed off a series of tricky questions about his lack of progress on a deal.” – Nicola Bartlett, Irish Mirror, 9 September 2019.

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 9 September 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson meeting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin. | 9 Sept 2019. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)