DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland wants Britain to commit to a fallback option that would avoid a customs border returning to the island of Ireland should its plan of maintaining the closest possible ties with the EU fall through, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Wednesday.
Ireland has called for Britain and the EU to reach a bespoke customs union partnership to eliminate the risk of a “hard” border returning between it and Northern Ireland, which will be the UK’s only land frontier with the EU after its departure.
Varadkar has said he is not ruling out seeking special post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland as a fallback position and on Wednesday raised the prospect of insisting Britain sign up to such an option in advance.
“It is still possible that the overall outcome will be a trade and customs relationships so close to the status quo that a border problem can be avoided, that depends very much on the attitude and positions taken by the UK government in the coming months,” Varadkar told parliament.
“Should that not be possible, however, it will be necessary for the UK to commit to arrangements for Northern Ireland that reflect its unique circumstances and to avoid reintroducing a customs border north and south.”
Varadkar said he stated his concerns to British Prime Minister Theresa May in a 40-minute telephone conversation on Monday.
The border is one of three issues Brussels wants broadly solved in the first stage of negotiations with Britain before talks on future trading can start, now likely to be in December at the earliest with this week’s deadline set to be missed.
The Irish government must be satisfied that sufficient progress has been made on its issues before agreeing to move the talks on.
The border is particularly sensitive given the decades of violence in Northern Ireland, a British province, over whether it should be part of the United Kingdom or Ireland. Around 3,600 people were killed before a 1998 peace agreement.
Varadkar welcomed the progress on other related Brexit issues, including the joint principles he said had been drawn up to ensure the continuation of the common travel area between the two countries that predates their entry into the EU in 1972.
He said the sides had also agreed to start work on a common understanding on what commitments would be necessary to effectively protect the 1998 peace deal.
Editing by Richard Balmforth