The Deputy asks reasonable questions. Following on from the March European Council, the EU and UK agreed to five additional formal rounds of negotiations between April and the next European Council in June. These negotiations are focused on all outstanding issues in the draft withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as the future relationship. The UK has accepted that a legally operative version of the backstop for the Border will be included in the withdrawal agreement, in line with paragraph 49 of the joint progress report agreed last December, and that all issues identified in the draft protocol reflect those that must be addressed. These are important steps forward but these commitments are not reflected in the debate and much of the media commentary, especially in the UK. Prime Minister May confirmed this in her letter to President Tusk of 19 March in addition to reiterating the UK's commitment last December to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including the overarching guarantee on avoiding a hard border.
The Government has always maintained that the backstop will apply unless and until another solution is found. Our preference is for another solution. We do not want to be relying solely on the backstop but it needs to be there as a fallback or an insurance mechanism. While we share Prime Minister May's preference to resolve these issues through a wider agreement on the EU's future relationship with the UK, it is crucial that we have certainty in all scenarios on the commitments already made on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Negotiations to close the remaining gaps in the draft withdrawal agreement are ongoing, including detailed discussions between the EU and the UK on issues relating to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Real and substantial progress is needed on agreeing the protocol ahead of the June European Council. This means the UK delivering on the clear commitments it made in December and again in March by engaging meaningfully on the text of the protocol in the coming weeks and, in particular, the text dealing with the backstop on avoiding a hard border and coming forward with workable proposals with a view to seeking agreement on the text so that the entire withdrawal agreement can be concluded by October.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
The EU has always made clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full. The European Council is continuing to follow the negotiations closely and will return to the remaining withdrawal issues, including the protocol, and to the framework for the future relationship at its next meeting in June. It will be for the European Council to assess progress based on a report from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and to draw conclusions on what this assessment will mean for the overall negotiations. However, the Irish Government and Michel Barnier have been consistent in our position that real and substantial progress be made by the June European Council meeting. This is a position shared by all our EU partners who continue to show steadfast support for Ireland.