Possible Brexit concessions in the works on Northern Ireland
A truck races past a sign against the re-establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. | David Keyton / AP

The European Union offered a “major concession” on  Brexit early Wednesday by proposing a legal mechanism for Northern Ireland to leave the proposed Irish backstop after several years. The date of 2025 has been mooted.

Speaking to the Times, sources close to the EU and U.K. negotiations said European governments are prepared to accept a unilateral revocation of the withdrawal treaty as long as both communities—unionists and Irish nationalists—agree to it.

Under the new proposals, Northern Ireland would stay in the EU customs union and single market until a “double majority” in the Northern Irish Assembly votes to leave.

Talks with the EU to reach a compromised Brexit deal have stalled over the backstop issue—a policy aimed at preventing the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event no deal is reached.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he wants to remove the “undemocratic backstop” and insists proposed customs checks be made way from the border, with final veto power in the hands of the Assembly. EU leaders, in turn, fear granting “consent” to the Assembly, which could ultimately give Johnson’s conservative ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, full veto power.

Currently, Northern Ireland has been without a functioning elected government since power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein (Irish Nationalist Party) collapsed in January 2017. By mid-October, it will have been without ministers and representatives for 1,000 days.

Of course, this means Northern Ireland lacks full political representation in the Brexit process, despite being directly affected by its outcome. And with Sinn Fein’s policy of “abstentionism,” there is an unbalanced representation at the House of Commons with the DUP in effect being the only—partisan—voice speaking on behalf of NI voters.

“I don’t think anyone who looks at it with any kind of objectivity at all will say it’s an improved offer. The double majority arrangement is designed to ensure we can never get out of the customs union, given all the other parties are supportive of staying in the EU,” said the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson, in response to the proposed offer.

The proposal is understood to have been an internal discussion with Ireland but has not been formally tabled by the EU.

“The EU is not ready to throw a lifeline. Let’s first see how things develop on the U.K. side,” the EU official said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said big gaps remain between Britain and the EU, and the chances of a breakthrough before next week are slim.

In an interview with RTE Tuesday night, Varadkar said: “The deal that we negotiated in good faith with Prime Minister (Theresa) May’s government over two years and sort of put half of that now back on the table and are saying, ‘That’s a concession’. And, of course, it isn’t really.

“I think it is going to be very difficult to secure an agreement by next week, quite frankly.”

EU and U.K. negotiators will meet Thursday, and the EU has said Johnson needs to have “workable proposals by the end of the week” if there is to be any breakthrough at the Oct. 17-18 EU summit.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.