Boris Johnson vows no physical checks on Irish border despite do-or-die Brexit pledge

British leader said the withdrawal agreement and its controversial backstop needed to be ripped up

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, (R), accompanied by local farmer Ingrid Shervington, holds a chicken during his visit to rally support for his farming plans post-Brexit, at Shervington Farm, St Brides Wentlooge near Newport, south Wales on July 30, 2019.  / AFP / POOL / Adrian DENNIS

There will be no physical checks on Ireland’s border with the UK after Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar in a first telephone call since the new British leader took office last week.

Mr Johnson reiterated that he wanted to scrap the controversial Irish backstop - the insurance agreement to keep the border open on the island of Ireland in a no-deal Brexit – and said the UK was ready to leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement on October 31.

Mr Johnson has said he wants to try and renegotiate the divorce deal with Brussels and ensure a managed departure, but Mr Varadkar said this was not possible.

In a statement the latter's office said “alternative arrangements” to the backstop could be envisioned in the future relationship between the two sides “but thus far satisfactory options have yet to be identified and demonstrated”.

The pound is buckling under concerns about Mr Johnson’s planning for a disruptive Brexit. Sterling dropped further against the dollar to 1.2119 on Tuesday, on course for its worst slide in almost three years. The cost of insuring against volatility in the pound over a three-month period has climbed to the highest among the Group-of-10 top currencies.

JPMorgan said the Bank of England would deliver a further blow to the sagging currency later this week by lowering their growth outlook when the quarterly inflation report is released on Thursday. Policy makers are expected to shift away from an outlook of rising interest rates.

“With Boris Johnson now installed as PM, the Brexit saga is set to recommence,” a JPMorgan client note said. “The BOE’s shift toward a neutral bias — all but giving up hopes for continued normalisation — will do little to support” sterling.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said his government remained “steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast Agreement and will never put physical checks or physical infrastructure on the border."

Also know as the Good Friday Agreement, the 1999 Belfast Agreement established a developed form of governance in Northern Ireland and brought peace after decades of violence. There are fears a hardened Irish border could pose a threat to efforts to reduce tensions, especially with Northern Ireland set to become the UK’s only land border with the EU.

The phone call between the two leaders was their first since Mr Johnson became prime minister last week. A staunch Brexiteer, he was accused by some of failing to prioritise the Irish border and peace on the island.

"Boris Johnson claims he wants to keep the Good Friday Agreement secure, but his desire to push through a no-deal Brexit makes that impossible. On top of that, his delay in speaking with the Irish Prime Minister shows his priorities lie away from the Irish border," said Naomi Smith, CEO of the anti-Brexit group Best for Britain.
"Brexit, from the very beginning, has threatened to break up the United Kingdom. Now, with a Prime Minister like Johnson, our Union is at greater risk than ever before. We need to stop Brexit before it breaks up our country."

But in other circles, Mr Johnson’s no-nonsense approach to the backstop and border issue will have attracted support from Northern Ireland’s hardline pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, which props up his government in a hung parliament.

On Tuesday, the prime minister faced a fresh wave of criticism, this time from the political leadership of Wales.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said he would warn Mr Johnson that Brexit will be “catastrophic” for Wales and will “decimate” its agricultural and manufacturing sectors, and risked ripping the UK apart.

“The PM must stop playing fast and loose with our country,” he said.