May to insist Brexit deal will ‘honour commitments’ to North

British prime minister spending two days in North meeting business and political leaders

The British prime minister Theresa May is to spend two days in the North over Tuesday and Wednesday trying to provide assurance that the Brexit deal she is seeking will command "broad support" in Northern Ireland.

She is to deliver a speech in Belfast on Tuesday where she is expected to acknowledge that the uncertainty over the possibility of a hard border and the conflicting views on the backstop have caused anxiety in the North.

The backstop is an insurance policy aimed at avoiding a hard border in Ireland in the absence of a future trade agreement. Under the current agreement, the UK will remain in a common customs area with the EU until a new deal is reached.

“I know this is a concerning time for many people here in Northern Ireland,” she is due to say. “But we will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland . . . [and one] that commands broad support across the community.”


Mrs May is also expected to urge renewed efforts to restore Stormont "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,” she is expected to say.

During her two-day visit she will meet Northern politicians, withSinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald and the SDLP's Colum Eastwood likely to challenge her on why she is now seeking an alternative to the backstop that she had previously agreed with the European Union.

Ahead of Mrs May's visit the DUP leader Arlene Foster said the backstop remained the major problem because it "drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement's principle of consent".

She said she was encouraged by some recent comments from EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Tánaiste Simon Coveney "where they have recognised that a hard border can be avoided in any circumstance".

“This is not a time for intransigence. It is time to respect unionists and nationalists alike in Northern Ireland and deliver a deal which is sensible and practical,” Ms Foster added.

Mrs May’s speech in Belfast is taking place as the British government seeks to conduct new negotiations with the EU about the EU-UK withdrawal deal which was comprehensively rejected by the House of Commons last month.

Mrs May originally urged political and business leaders in Northern Ireland to support her Brexit deal but after it was defeated in the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202 she then moved to try to find an alternative to the backstop.

‘Great anxiety’

The British Labour Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer who met business people, trade unions, the SDLP and Sinn Féin in Belfast on Monday, said he had detected "great anxiety" in Northern Ireland after Mrs May "voted against the backstop that she negotiated".

And while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has opposed the backstop Sir Keir said it appeared that some form of backstop was now inevitable. He said: "We have got concerns with the backstop but we accept that a backstop is inevitable given that the prime minister has now run down the article 50 clock and nobody credibly thinks that a new treaty arrangement with the EU is going to be agreed by January 1st, 2021. So we have concerns about the backstop but we now recognise that a backstop is now inevitable."

Sir Keir called on Mrs May to shift from her so-called red lines and to hold a House of Commons vote on a permanent customs union to help break the Brexit deadlock.

The DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said Sir Keir’s comments about the backstop which appeared to be in conflict with previous comments by Mr Corbyn reflected the “internal struggle inside the Labour Party”.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said she made it clear to Sir Keir in Belfast that the backstop was “not open to renegotiation”.

SDLP leader Mr Eastwood said he was encouraged by his meeting with the Labour MP. “The SDLP have been clear, we cannot allow the disarray in London to spill over and disrupt the lives of people here. The backstop must be banked,” he added.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times