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belfast speech

So what now? Theresa May rejects the EU's Brexit backstop, saying it would create a border in the UK

“The government I lead will never be neutral in a union, we will always be in favour of it,” she said.

Brexit PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May has given an important speech in Belfast this morning, referencing the contentious Brexit ‘backstop’ and the Irish border issue.

In her speech, May spoke about a range of issues, including the representation of nationalists in Northern Ireland, Brexit, and the Irish border, but the most significant comments were about the ‘backstop’ agreement with the EU.

In her speech, May said that the EU’s suggestion that Northern Ireland would remain aligned with EU customs regulations in the event of no other solution to the Irish border wasn’t acceptable, and wouldn’t be accepted by a UK prime minister or the House of Commons.

She said that it would contradict the Good Friday Agreement, and that it was up to the European Union to suggest an alternative.

When pressed on what would be preferred, she said that it would be preferred if there was an actual customs agreement with the EU.

The EU and UK agreed in December to a Brexit backstop for Northern Ireland which means there would be “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland, but that they would also avoid a border along the Irish Sea.

There has been much speculation on whether the UK will backtrack on the ‘backstop’ agreement or the ‘Plan B’ arrangement for the relationship between Northern Ireland and the republic in the event of no other solution.

The UK government has asked that the whole of the UK be included in the backstop agreement – the EU said that this was unacceptable, and that the backstop was an exception to preserve the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.

“I don’t accept that for one minute [that there is no backstop deal],” Tánaiste Simon Coveney said earlier this week. “The British government continually confirmed that they are committed to a backstop that deals with the Irish border question, and confirmed last March and in the White Paper as much.”

The UK premier is on a two-day visit to Northern Ireland during what is a crucial point in Brexit negotiations. There’s still no solution to the Irish border issue just months before the European Parliament and the House of Commons is scheduled to vote on a final deal.

During the first day of her visit to the North yesterday, May visited business owners and farmers along the border to discuss their concerns about the UK leaving the EU.

What did she say this morning?

Theresa may Sky News Sky News

Quoting Churchill at one point, May reaffirmed her commitment to Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom.

She said that as As the UK leaves the European Union, “striking trade deals across the world… that of course includes Northern Ireland”.

She said that Northern Ireland is “wholly original”, a “TV powerhouse supported by UK funds” and “2 million visitors as tourists to experience its beauty” every year.

Referencing those in favour of a united Ireland, she said that they are “absolutely committed to parity of esteem and want to work with all communities”.

The government I lead will never be neutral in a union, we will always be in favour of it.

She said that the fact that Drew Harris was to become the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána was an example of how much progress had been made.

Referencing the absence of a Stormont Executive for over a year and a half, she commended the North’s civil service for upholding the duties of government in absence of elected lawmakers.

But she added: “Effective and enduring devolved government is the right thing for the union”.

On the issue of a hard border, she said:

“I’ve said consistency that there can never be a hard border. During the referendum that the border must remain unchanged, you just have to speak to businesses along the border, who say it’s inconceivable. Neither would it be feasible for those in distribution chains.”

Reacting to May’s comments today, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he believed it is possible for the EU’s position to evolve, as long as the “core issues are not undermined”, he added.

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One, Coveney said the EU must ensure that Britain does not gain a competitive advantage by leaving the customs union.

He welcomed May’s call that there be no border infrastructure between Britain and the EU, stating that the EU will now engage in negotiations on the UK’s White Paper.

“I don’t think we will see the White Paper agreed in full. I think it is a basis for a detailed and real negotiations,” said Coveney.

He predicted there would be “some problems” ahead, but added that the negotiations started this week and will run into August.

Where things get difficult is discussions surrounding the backstop and how to ensure there is no infrastructure along the border, he added.

“I don’t believe we are heading for a no deal Brexit – I have never believed that,” said the minister, who was quick to point out that that does not mean that preparations for a hard Brexit are not underway.

“The White Paper is a step in the right direction,” he concluded.

Sinn Féin Leader Mary McDonald  said May visited the North “to pick a fight with Ireland and the European Union”.

“We were told that the British Minister came to Ireland to listen and to reassure. It is clear that she is not listening to community and business interests and seeks only to reassure the DUP.

“Her approach today has been provocative, to set aside her agreement with the EU from December and to walk away from a backstop,” she said.

McDonald said the UK prime minister states she wants to avoid a hard border in Ireland, however, she is pursuing a policy that will deliver a hard border.

She said there is now an onus on the Irish government to stand up in the interests of all Ireland and Europe needs to make good its commitment that Ireland comes first.

“The backstop is the contingency plan. It was agreed and should be honoured.

“What is required now is that the issues pertaining to Ireland be solved at an EU level. We need clarity and certainty for our people and the economy.

“That requires immediate talks and very clearly unless the Irish issues are resolved there can be no withdrawal agreement and no talks on future relationships.”

Additional reporting Christina Finn

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