Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives for a visit to new physical infrastructure at Dublin Port which has been put in place to meet the requirements for customs, SPS and health checks on consignments of goods imported from or transiting the UK. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday September 8, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Brexit Ireland. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Leo Varadkar, Ireland's premier, visits new checkpoints at Dublin port on Sunday © PA

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, has warned Boris Johnson that he should not expect any breakthrough in talks on the future of the Irish border as the UK premier makes his first visit to Dublin on Monday.

In comments that underline the challenge facing Mr Johnson ahead of a pivotal week for Brexit, Mr Varadkar said no other EU country shared Britain’s assessment that it was making progress in the talks.

Mr Johnson now says he is pouring his energies into trying to seek a new Brexit deal after MPs voted last week to pass legislation thwarting a no-deal Brexit.

“If that is what’s being said, that’s a very optimistic assessment of where we stand,” Mr Varadkar told reporters after touring new checkpoints at Dublin port that will be used to inspect UK cargo if Britain crashes out of the bloc without a deal next month.

“I don’t expect any big breakthroughs but I do think it’s an opportunity for us to establish a relationship.”

The UK prime minister has not met his Irish counterpart since taking office in July, although they have spoken twice by phone.

Mr Johnson was due to arrive for the high-stakes meeting with Mr Varadkar on Monday morning. Later, in London, he will try a second time to trigger a snap general election but the move is set to be blocked again by opposition MPs.

The administration has been damaged in recent days by the cabinet resignations of both Jo Johnson, the prime minister’s brother, and Amber Rudd, a personal friend — in protest at Number 10 sacking 21 MPs last week for backing the anti-no deal Brexit bill.

Amid the ministerial resignations and the loss of his parliamentary majority, Mr Varadkar questioned whether the UK leader could strike a new deal with Brussels.

“Prime Minister Johnson doesn’t have a majority so I’ll be asking him how he can convince us — Ireland and EU — that he is actually capable or has the votes to get a deal through.”

France’s foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on Sunday that Paris would not wave through another Brexit delay “in the current state of things”, urging the UK to come up with new proposals.

“They say they want to offer other solutions to ensure the withdrawal,” Mr Le Drian said Sunday in an interview with CNews television. “We haven’t seen them, so it’s no. We won’t start over again every three months.”

Downing Street was privately threatening to ignore the anti-no deal legislation and refuse to seek a delay to Brexit, a move that could prompt an emergency judicial review by the Supreme Court.

Opposition MPs meanwhile raised the threat of impeachment against Mr Johnson if he failed to ask for an extension to Article 50 under last week’s no-deal bill. Liz Saville Roberts, leader of Plaid Cymru, called for a Commons vote on an impeachment motion that — if passed — could lead to prosecution and trial in Westminster Hall.

The archaic manoeuvre was last attempted in 2004 when Plaid Cymru sought to impeach Tony Blair over the Iraq war — with the support of then Tory backbencher Boris Johnson.

The threat of ignoring legislation has raised fresh questions in Dublin as to whether Mr Johnson can be trusted. “Dialogue and trust is evaporating,” said a senior Irish figure involved in Brexit preparations. “If he isn’t going to adhere to his own parliamentarians, how can he be expected to adhere to any other parliamentarians?”

Mr Varadkar said he was open to the idea of a Northern Ireland-only “backstop” to maintain open borders between the UK and the Irish Republic, a plan that Mr Johnson may revive as he struggles to break the impasse with Brussels.

But the Irish leader insisted Mr Johnson’s new proposal for an all-Ireland agricultural zone was flawed, even though it would go some way towards avoiding the need for disruptive animal and food controls at the border. 

“It isn’t enough,” he said. “It accounts for maybe 30 per cent of trade and 30 per cent of the kind of checks and controls that exist . . . I think we’d need a single Irish economic zone or whatever you want to call it, to cover more than agriculture and food.”

British ministers claim, however, that while agrifood is only 30-40 per cent of trade by value, it accounts for a much higher proportion of cross-border journeys.

The plan for a single agricultural zone in Ireland is seen in Dublin as problematic as there would be no way of separating unchecked agrifood from other goods that would need checking. “As trucks and vans cross the border, you won’t be able to assume what’s in them . . . it’s a smuggler’s charter,” said one Irish minister.

The idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop — covering all trade with the Irish Republic — has been repeatedly rejected by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists because they maintain it would create a new border in the Irish Sea with the rest of the UK. But UK cabinet ministers and Number 10 are privately optimistic that the DUP is prepared to be flexible. 

The alternative, an all-UK backstop agreed by former prime minister Theresa May, has been rejected three times by the House of Commons.

Downing Street believes that Leave voters are still solidly behind Mr Johnson’s leadership despite the sackings and resignations. “As the polls show, the public do not back attempts by some MPs to cancel the referendum,” a senior government source said.

With UK opposition parties refusing to back Mr Johnson’s attempts to trigger an early election, the prime minister could move as early as Monday evening to suspend parliament for five weeks.

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