DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s prime minister said he was disappointed that Britain and the EU had failed to close a deal on Northern Ireland’s border on Monday, and warned he would not accept any change to the substance of the agreement.
Leo Varadkar said negotiators from both sides had told him earlier on Monday they had reached an agreement on the nature of the border after Britain leaves the European Union.
The agreement, diplomats told Reuters, was to keep Northern Ireland “aligned” to EU regulations to prevent a “hard border” replacing the current open frontier with the Irish Republic.
The news sent the pound higher on hopes that envoys had cleared major blockage in talks and possibly opened the way to a softer Brexit and Britain-EU trade negotiations.
But reports of the deal angered the Northern Irish allies of British Prime Minister Theresa May. And she and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker emerged from a lunchtime meeting to tell media that no agreement had been reached.
“We had an agreement this morning. We’re disappointed and surprised to hear that agreement cannot be concluded today but we’re happy to give the UK government more time, if it needs it, so we can conclude it in the coming days,” Varadkar told a news briefing in Dublin.
Varadkar said Ireland’s position was “unequivocal” and it would accept changes to the agreed text only if the meaning remained the same.
“The text was agreed this morning. We haven’t received any request that there be changes to that,” he said. Asked if he would consider changes, he said “not any way that changes the meaning”.
“Ireland wants to move onto phase two however we cannot agree to do that without firm guarantees that there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland under any circumstances,” he said.
Varadkar said Juncker had told him “Ireland’s position remains Europe’s position” and that both still hoped the matter can be concluded in the coming days.
Varadkar refused to comment on why the British negotiating team appeared to change its mind on the text, but he said that May’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party represented only a minority of people in Northern Ireland.
In rejecting the earlier reported deal, the DUP issued an uncompromising reiteration of its refusal to accept any “divergence” from rules on the British mainland.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Heavens