Boris Johnson is trying to strike a deal with the Irish government that would effectively undermine aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Britain has asked for the Irish government’s help in urging the European Commission to relax customs checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland, RTÉ News reports.
In return, Downing Street has offered to fast track Irish lorries passing through British ports after Brexit.
The offer was made through ‘official contacts’ and is being treated ‘with caution’, the broadcaster reports.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, which forms as part of the Withdrawal Agreement ratified by Westminster and all 27 EU member states late last year, Northern Ireland will operate under the EU’s customs and single market rules. This means goods passing through Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to custom checks and controls.
But Britain is now seeking to bypass those restrictions to assuage to fears of Unionists concerned about the impact of customs infrastructure on the state of the union between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
According to senior sources involved in the matter on both sides, London has asked Dublin to urge the European Commission to loosen the way those checks and controls are applied. In return, London has offered to make it easier for Irish hauliers to move good across the UK come January 1, 2021.
Some 80% of Irish exports to the EU rely on the UK land route to European ports via Dover and other exit points.
It is understood Downing Street is asking for flexibility on aspects of the protocol most sensitive to Unionists such as conducting checks on food destined for Northern Ireland in British depots, rather than at Northern Ireland ports, and for checks on live animals to occur at abattoirs than at the port of Larne.
Ireland has so far ruled out any bilateral agreements with Britain.
One official said: ‘We won’t get in a position where we’re teaming up with the British on something and then going back with it to Brussels.
‘That’s just not how it was done for four years and we’re not going to start doing it now.
‘We will transparently discuss and explore with the commission and [Michael Barnier’s] Task Force whether they’d be prepared to negotiate or explore these ideas, but we won’t do it bilaterally, and that still stands.’
Another official remains sceptical about Downing Street’s offer to prioritise Irish trucks coming through its ports saying that congestion on British ports after Brexit would make any offer impossible to implement.
‘You could be signing up for something that sounds great in theory, but discover that it’s just not possible to operate effectively,’ said one source.
‘If you were guaranteed a fast track that would have some attraction. But we could get resistance from other member states about it, and you would also have to be convinced it would work in practice.’