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Irish leader Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson speak after "stand off"

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar in Brussels in June. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar on Tuesday spoke on the phone for the first time, nearly a full week since Johnson became prime minister.

Johnson told Varadkar that it was “his clear preference” to leave the EU with a deal, but that “it must be one that abolishes the backstop”, according to a UK government spokesperson.

Varadkar, according to an Irish government statement, insisted that “satisfactory” alternative arrangements that could replace the backstop “had yet to be identified and demonstrated.”

Both leaders also said they were committed to seeing a restoration of powersharing in Northern Ireland, which has been without a government for well over two years.

“The taoiseach congratulated the prime minister on his appointment and both leaders underscored their commitment to working closely together in the spirit of the warm and deep relationship between the UK and Ireland,” the UK government spokesperson said.

Varadkar has invited Johnson to Dublin to “share further their respective analyses on Brexit and to continue discussion of bilateral matters”.

The call came after Varadkar had been blamed for the week-long delay in holding the call by a senior member of the party that props up his government in parliament.

The delay had been seen in Irish diplomatic circles as evidence of the UK trying to “up the ante” over the Northern Ireland backstop, which Johnson insists must be removed from any Brexit deal.

But Timmy Dooley, a member of the front bench of the opposition Fianna Fáil party, said on Tuesday morning that it was “a direct result of Taoiseach Varadkars [sic] failure to engage in basic diplomacy over the past 2 years.”

Even though Varadkar’s Fine Gael party, which Fianna Fáil supports as part of a confidence-and-supply agreement, has been in office since 2011, Dooley accused the Irish government of a “lack of experience and arrogance.”

The comment from Dooley suggests that his party, which has thus far strongly backed Fine Gael’s Brexit stance, is wavering in its support.

Varadkar’s government does not have a majority in parliament and it is thus reliant on the support of Fianna Fáil, which typically abstains from votes.

Dooley was commenting on an article from the Irish Independent, which reported that officials in London and Dublin were on Monday night trying to arrange a phone call between Varadkar and Johnson.

Though the call between Varadkar and Johnson was described as “warm”, the delay is nonetheless highly unusual.

Varadkar spoke to Theresa May within two days of becoming Irish prime minister in 2017, while May spoke to Varadkar’s predecessor Enda Kenny on the day she became prime minister in 2016.

Kenny spoke to David Cameron two days after he won the 2015 general election.

Calls between prime ministers are typically negotiated by senior officials on each side, but the reports suggest that it is Johnson, not Varadkar, who was reluctant to speak on the phone.

Johnson on Monday insisted that he would not meet with other EU leaders until they agree to renegotiate the Brexit deal.