Johnson under fire over apparent ignorance of Irish position on Brexit

The British Labour Party branded it a "blunder" that showed he was "simply not up to the job"

Johnson under fire over apparent ignorance of Irish position on Brexit

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in Dublin, 17-11-2017. Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews

Britain’s Foreign secretary has come under fire after he claimed he “wasn't aware” of Ireland’s position on Brexit negotiations.

Boris Johnson made the comment during a joint press conference with the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at Iveagh House in Dublin this morning.

The conference highlighted the gulf that remains between the two Governments on a number of issues – including what agreements are required before Brexit talks move on to the next stage.

Warning that a sense of “jumping into the dark” remains when it comes to Brexit, Minister Coveney again insisted that “very serious issues” need to be resolved regarding the Irish border, the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.

After Mr Johnson reiterated his call for talks to move on to Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU, Minister Coveney said: “Yes we all want to move on to phase two but we are not in place right now that allows us to do that.”

“From an Irish perspective, there is a sense of jumping into the dark here,” he said. “We understand the aspirations for where everybody wants to go; but we don’t have the clarity or the certainty or the credibility that helps us to believe we can get that done.”

Five-year transition

He then repeated his assertion that the appropriate timetable for the Brexit process is “closer to four or five years than it is to two” – much to the surprise of Mr Johnson.

Asked for his reaction, the Foreign Secretary said: "Well I must confess that I wasn't aware of the proposal from Simon for such a long transitional period.”

"But I think I understand the sentiment behind it which is that everybody wants to have the maximum possible reassurance. I think it's possible to do that within a much shorter timescale."

Ignorance

His apparent ignorance of the Irish position sparked anger in the UK - with one Labour source branding it a "blunder" that showed he was "simply not up to the job."

A member of Britain’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Chris Bryant said it was "inconceivable" Mr Johnson did not know or had not been briefed on Ireland's position.

Meanwhile, Open Britain supporter Ben Bradshaw said: "It is astounding that Boris Johnson was unaware of the Irish government's position; given Ireland's central importance in the Brexit talks.”

"Not only does Mr Johnson fail to read his official briefs, he clearly doesn't read the newspapers,” he said.

"His cavalier and slapdash approach is typical of this Government's amateurish and damaging approach to Brexit."

Border

Mr Johnson did insist that Britain remained firmly opposed to a return to a hard border, but again failed to provide any concrete detail on how that may be achieved.

“This matters hugely to our people on both sides of the border,” he said. “It is vital that we get it right.”

“I am sure that we can get it right and one thing I can tell you is that the British Government has absolutely no interest whatever in seeing any kind of hard border.

“That is the last thing that we want to see as a result of this exercise.”

He later quipped that that it was time to get on to the “meat” of the negotiations – a claim that appeared to rile Minister Coveney further.

The Minister said the border is very much the meat of the issue, adding that the UK needed to be “a lot clearer” regarding its proposals if the current “impasse” was to be resolved.

Written commitment

While the foreign ministers were meeting in Dublin, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was meeting with the British Prime Minister Theresa May in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar shares a joke with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Sweden, 17-11-2017. Image: Virginia Mayo/AP/Press Association Images

Mr Varadkar said Ireland wants a written commitment that there will be no return to a hard border, “written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one."

"What we want to take off the table before we even talk about trade is any idea that there would be a hard border, physical border or border resembling the past in Ireland.

"So once those parameters are set, then we'd be happy to move on to phase two - provided the other issues of course are resolved as well".

A decision on whether to move on to the second phase of talks will be taken at December’s meeting of the European Council.

EU negotiators have consistently warned that “significant progress” will have to be in three key areas – the Irish border, citizen’s rights and the so-called Brexit bill – before the talks can move forward.

Additional reporting from IRN ...