Theresa May insists she can still strike Brexit deal that secures 'broad support' in Northern Ireland

Written by Matt Foster on 5 February 2019 in News

On a visit to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister will says she can deliver a Brexit that commands broad support across the community

Theresa May - Image credit: PA Images

Theresa May will insist that she can still achieve a Brexit deal that commands "broad support" in Northern Ireland as she searches for alternatives to the agreement's controversial backstop.

 The Prime Minister will kick off a two-day visit to the country by acknowledging that uncertainty over Britain's plans to leave the EU are "concerning" for the people living there.

But she will vow to "deliver for the people of Northern Ireland" as she presses the European Union to agree changes to the plan to avoid a hard Irish border.

The trip comes amid ongoing anger from Northern Ireland's DUP at the "toxic" backstop, which will keep the UK tied to a customs union with the EU if it is triggered.

In a speech today, May will say: "I know this is a concerning time for many people here in Northern Ireland.

"But we will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland and that secures a majority in the Westminster parliament, which is the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

"As we do so, I hope we can also take steps to move towards the restoration of devolution so that politicians in Northern Ireland can get back to work on the issues that matter to the people they represent.

"For ultimately, the measure of this moment in Northern Ireland's history must be more than whether we avoid a return to the challenges of the past.

"It must be how, together, we move forwards to shape the opportunities of the future.

"As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, it is a profound honour and duty to play my part in shaping that future and to do my utmost to support the peace, prosperity and progress that can give the people of Northern Ireland, the brightest future for generations."

But DUP leader Arlene Foster, who will meet the Prime Minister for talks in Belfast, repeated her longstanding objections to the backstop, which she warned "drives a coach and horses" through the historic Good Friday Agreement's "principle of consent".

She said: "Parliament has spoken. A majority has rejected the current backstop.

"The European Union must now accept the need for the withdrawal agreement to be reopened. The toxic backstop must be dealt with."

The Prime Minister's visit comes as former Remain and Leave-backing Tory MPs continued talks aimed at thrashing out an alternative Brexit plan that would avoid the need for the backstop to be triggered.

In a statement issued after the meeting to discuss the so-called 'Malthouse Compromise', a spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union said: "Discussions were detailed and constructive and the first step of a process to find common ground on the issue of the backstop.

"There will be subsequent meetings tomorrow and coming days."

But Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney dismissed efforts to find an alternative to the arrangement as "wishful thinking".

He said: "The Irish protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement already allows for alternative arrangements or alternative solutions to the backstop and if they're there they can replace the backstop.

"The problem is that none of those ideas around alternative arrangements stand up to scrutiny, we have certainly not seen any that have."

The Prime Minister is meanwhile facing the prospect of a fresh challenge to the backstop, with Lord Trimble, the former Northern Irish first minister who was instrumental in drawing up the Good Friday Agreement, launching legal proceedings against the Government to try and kill off the plan.

A spokesperson told Reuters: "The Nobel Peace Prize winner and architect of the Good Friday Agreement plans to initiate judicial review proceedings to ensure that the protocol is removed from the withdrawal agreement."

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