Irish sources have dismissed claims the Government leaned on Wicklow-based Arklow Shipping to pull out of a controversial deal to provide extra ferries to the British government in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is under pressure to resign after admitting the deal – which had been presented as a centre-piece of the UK’s emergency Brexit planning – had unravelled.
Mr Grayling said on Saturday a contract awarded by his department in December to UK company Seaborne Freight had been cancelled, citing a decision by Irish firm Arklow Shipping to “step back from the deal”.
Arklow Shipping is a long-established shipping business owned for generations by the Tyrell family.
It has operations in its home port in Co Wicklow and in Rotterdam with a fleet of 55 ships. It is understood the company was originally on board to back Seaborne Freight, but had yet to take a formal stake in the venture.
In a letter to Mr Grayling on January 18 last, the managing director of Arklow Shipping, James A Tyrell, confirmed his company had been involved with Seaborne Freight over the previous 12 months and that it intended to finance the purchase of two vessels to operate a route between Ramsgate and Ostend and to buy a stake in Seaborne.
Seaborne Freight had won the contract for a ferry service between the English port of Ramsgate and Ostend, across the Channel in Belgium, despite not having any ferries. That prompted widespread controversy in the UK in December when the contract was announced. Arklow Shipping’s involvement was not announced at the time.
Seaborne was one of three bidders awarded contracts worth £103m (€118m) in all to run ferries in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Brittany Ferries and DFDS won the other contracts.
On Saturday, pro-Brexit Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned whether the Irish Government was behind Arklow Shipping pulling its backing, without citing any evidence.
European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee dismissed the speculation, saying there was “absolutely no truth to it”.
Arklow Shipping’s decision is understood to have been made on a commercial assessment of the situation. Officials at Ramsgate and Ostend have questioned whether a new ferry service could be operational on time for the UK’s potential exit from the European Union on March 29.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May has reached out to Labour for help with a critical issue with her Brexit plan as she pleads with MPs for extra time to secure a breakthrough.
The prime minister struck a conciliatory tone in a letter to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, where she invited his party to help drum up alternatives to the divisive Irish backstop, which has proved a major stumbling block to getting a deal through the Commons.
But Mrs May risked creating a fresh Tory rift by failing to explicitly rule out a customs union with the EU, amid warnings from rank-and-file Conservatives that such a move would amount to an “unforgivable betrayal”.
It comes after Mr Corbyn took many in Westminster by surprise when he wrote to Ms May laying out his terms for Labour to support a Brexit deal, which included a customs union and guarantees on workers’ rights.
In her response, Ms May said: “When we met, you outlined your concerns about the possible indefinite nature of the backstop, concerns you repeatedly publicly afterwards. I hope you will therefore agree with me that seeking alternative arrangements to the current backstop is a necessary step to finding a deal that can command support in parliament. One of the things I would like our teams to discuss is the exact nature of those alternative arrangements.”
Mrs May has been scrambling to find a way to replace the divisive Irish backstop with an alternative plan, after MPs overwhelmingly rejected her deal last month.
Talks in Brussels and Dublin yielded only stony opposition from EU leaders last week, who have repeatedly said the Brexit deal cannot be renegotiated.
However, Mr Corbyn’s proposals for a softer Brexit were met with interest by the EU.
Mrs May did not reject his demands outright, but said: “I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?”
She also questioned whether the call for “frictionless” trade would mean reneging on Labour’s commitment to end free movement.
The development came after her government admitted MPs might not get a chance to vote on the final deal until next month, despite exit day looming on March 29.