British Prime Minister Theresa May in Belfast on Tuesday
By Anthony Neeson
British Prime Minister Theresa May has told business leaders in Belfast that her government is committed to avoiding a hard border in Ireland after Brexit.
May, who last week ditched her own Brexit deal with the European Union to join Tory rebels in calling for changes to the backstop plan, was in Belfast Tuesday on the first of a two-day visit to Northern Ireland.
When May was in Belfast in November she urged support for her backstop plans, which have won the support of business leaders and farming unions in the North.
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Now she was asking them to trust her and her government to seek “alternative arrangements” to the very same backstop.
“I’m here today to affirm my commitment, and that of the UK Government, to all of the people of Northern Ireland, of every background and tradition,” May told her audience.
“Northern Ireland does not have to rely on the Irish government or the European Union to prevent a return to borders of the past. The UK government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen.
“I want to work closely with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Irish government to strengthen the bilateral relationship we have built.”
May said that she had made the case for her agreement with the EU in the House of Commons, a deal which included the backstop, but MPs had voted it down.
“I fought hard to make the case for the deal as it stands. I believed it could command a majority in the House of Commons, but I have had to face up to the fact that in its current form it cannot and the need for changes to the backstop is the key issue.
“While there were those in Northern Ireland who favored it, it is also true that the backstop is not supported by the two main unionist parties here, and it also influenced MPs in England, Scotland and Wales in voting against the deal.”
Responding, Sinn Féin Deputy Leader, Michelle O’Neill, said Theresa May had a “serious credibility issue.”
“She negotiated a legally binding solution in the backstop to prevent a hard border on this island with the European Union, and is now attempting to abandon that agreement.”
On a visit to Belfast on Monday where he met political leaders, the British Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, said Labour recognized the need for a backstop.
“From the Labour Party point of view, we obviously see that there are difficulties with the backstop,” he said. “There are features there that are going to cause concern. But we recognize there is a need for a backstop at this stage of the exercise.”
After meeting Starmer, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “Today we made clear that London must stop placing the interests of the people of Northern Ireland behind parliamentary arithmetic.
“The backstop is the only mechanism to ensure against a hard border and the only way to uphold the will of the people of Northern Ireland. It is that simple.”