Brexit set to dominate discussions at British Irish Council summit

Brexit is expected to dominate the agenda as leaders from across the UK and Ireland attend a summit meeting on the Isle of Man later today.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar; Cabinet Office Minister and the UK’s de facto deputy prime minister David Lidington; Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon; and First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones will be among those attending the British Irish Council (BIC) summit.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley MP

Secretary of State Karen Bradley MP

Representatives of the governments of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man will also participate in the 31st summit meeting of a forum set up as part of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.

Northern Ireland ministers have been absent from the twice-yearly gatherings in recent years due to the powersharing crisis at Stormont. But Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley will attend the event.

The BIC summit is the last before Brexit and comes amid ongoing deadlock over the thorny issue of the Irish border.

The UK and EU’s failure to agree a “backstop” position - to maintain a free-flowing border even if a wider trade deal fails to materialise - continues to stand in the way of an agreed exit deal.

The devolution impasse in Belfast is also set to feature in the political discussions on Friday, with the UK and Irish governments having yet to agree a strategy on how to re-initiate talks between the region’s rowing politicians.

UK prime ministers have attended BIC meetings in past, but not on a regular basis and not in recent years.

At summit meetings in the last two years, Theresa May has been criticised for not attending, given the challenges to the participating governments presented by Brexit.

Meanwhile, Mrs May faced a fresh Brexit headache as her plans risked a rift with her Democratic Unionist Party allies.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the Prime Minister appeared “wedded to the idea of a border down the Irish Sea” despite Downing Street’s assurances to the contrary.

The European Union’s fallback proposal aimed at avoiding a hard border between Ireland and the UK would effectively keep Northern Ireland aligned with Brussels’s customs union and single market.

A leaked letter from the Prime Minister to Mrs Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds set out Mrs May’s approach.

She wants a “backstop” measure which would create a temporary “joint customs territory” with the EU for the whole of the UK.

But Brussels appears set to insist on a Northern Ireland-only “backstop to the backstop” in case negotiations on a wider UK approach break down.

In the letter, obtained by The Times, Mrs May said: “I am clear that I could not accept there being any circumstances or conditions in which that ‘backstop to the backstop’, which would break up the UK customs territory, could come in to force.”

But the DUP has interpreted the wording of her letter to mean that the measure will be contained in the Brexit divorce deal despite Mrs May’s insistence it will never come into effect.

Mrs Foster said: “The Prime Minister’s letter raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious union and for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole of the UK.

“It appears the Prime Minister is wedded to the idea of a border down the Irish Sea with Northern Ireland in the EU single market regulatory regime.”

The Prime Minister relies on the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs for her Commons majority, votes which may become crucial as she attempts to get a deal through Parliament.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister’s letter sets out her commitment, which she has been absolutely clear about on any number of occasions, to never accepting any circumstances in which the UK is divided into two customs territories.

“The Government will not agree anything that brings about a hard border on the island of Ireland.”

Any version of the backstop would apply unless and until a wider UK-EU deal on the future relationship solved the issue of how to avoid a hard border with Ireland.

Downing Street has played down suggestions that a Brexit deal is imminent, after European Council president Donald Tusk appeared to indicate a breakthrough could come within the next week.

A senior UK Government source said that reports in the European media that a deal could come in the next few days should be taken “with a very large pinch of salt”.

A potential sticking point could be demands for EU fishing fleets to be given continued access to British coastal waters as the price for agreeing to Mrs May’s UK-wide backstop, the Daily Telegraph reported.

A UK-wide customs deal would maintain quota-free and tariff-free access to European markets for the British fishing industry and in return the EU wants to keep continued access to UK waters for its trawlers, the newspaper said.