BELFAST • Britain's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson held talks in Northern Ireland yesterday in a bid to untangle an impasse over the Irish border "backstop" that has scuppered all efforts to secure an orderly withdrawal from the European Union.
Plans for the border have become the most contentious issue in negotiations with the EU, and the British pound has tumbled in recent days as Mr Johnson said Britain would leave without a deal on Oct 31 unless the backstop was scrapped.
He told Northern Irish parties yesterday that he would stand by the government's commitment to the Irish peace agreement and a pledge not to return to a hard border whatever the result of Brexit, a spokesman said.
"The discussions also included Brexit, where the Prime Minister made clear that the UK would be leaving the EU on October 31st come what may, and restated his intention to do so with a deal," the spokesman said in a statement.
"He said that in all scenarios, the government is steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement and that in no circumstances would there be physical checks or infrastructure on the border."
The head of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, Ms Mary Lou McDonald, said she warned Mr Johnson that leaving without a deal would be catastrophic for the economy and the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence in the region.
About 3,600 people died in sectarian violence commonly known as The Troubles.
Mr Johnson began his trip with talks on Tuesday evening with the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-British party in the region whose 10 members in Parliament prop up the Conservative government.
After the meeting, DUP leader Arlene Foster repeated Mr Johnson's demand that the backstop, designed as an insurance policy to prevent border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland, be scrapped. "It is very important that the backstop goes," she said.
But a senior DUP lawmaker also at the meeting said possible compromises were discussed - specifically the possibility of putting a time limit on the backstop and other "pragmatic solutions".
Asked if Mr Johnson was responsive to the suggestion, DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson told Irish radio RTE that he would not "negotiate in public on this".
NO HARD PARTITION
(The British Prime Minister) said that in all scenarios, the government is steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement and that in no circumstances would there be physical checks or infrastructure on the border.
A SPOKESMAN FOR DOWNING STREET, on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's talks with Northern Irish parties.
Ahead of the talks, Mr Johnson also said he wanted a quick restoration of Northern Ireland's suspended power-sharing executive, a critical part of the 1998 peace deal.
The power-sharing administration was suspended 21/2 years ago because of differences between the parties representing mainly Protestant pro-British unionists and mainly Catholic nationalists who favour a united Ireland.
A couple of dozen protesters held a rally against Brexit while the talks continued.
Sticking point in Brexit deal
DUBLIN • The Irish "backstop" is the key sticking point in efforts to agree on an orderly British exit from the European Union.
Britain's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that to reach a new deal, the backstop would have to be struck out. Here are the key points.
The backstop is an "insurance policy" to make sure Ireland's 500km land border with the British province of Northern Ireland remains open, whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
Ireland says this is a key national interest as any checks or border infrastructure could undermine Northern Ireland's 1998 peace deal.
About 3,600 died in the three-decade conflict. The open border has helped defuse anger among Irish nationalists about British rule.
Both the EU and Britain have said they do not want any physical infrastructure on the Irish border, and both say they would prefer that the backstop never come into force - but they have failed to agree on alternative arrangements.
HOW IT WORKS
Under the current text of the Withdrawal Agreement, the backstop would be invoked at the end of the transition period next year, creating a single EU-United Kingdom Customs territory. The clause is designed as a default mechanism to remain in place "unless and until" it is superseded by alternative arrangements that ensure the same outcome.
WHY BREXITERS OBJECT
Brexiters worry that the backstop would keep Britain dependent on rules set from Brussels, and would hinder efforts to strike trade deals with third countries - one of the key benefits they see for leaving the EU in the first place.
Former leader Theresa May had argued for "alternative arrangements" without the backstop and pro-Brexit advocates insist that technology can allow virtual checks on the border.
The EU has rejected proposed alternatives, saying they are untested and need to be worked on during the transition. Others have suggested a time limit or a unilateral exit clause from the backstop.
But in recent days, Mr Johnson has rejected this and said the backstop must be scrapped in its entirety.
If there were no deal, Ireland would not be able to let the only EU land border with the UK stand open for long.
If it failed to check goods coming in from Britain, Ireland itself could find the EU raising questions on whether Irish exports to the rest of the union should remain free of all checks at their ports.