Government rejects new May appeal to reopen withdrawal agreement

British prime minister says during Belfast visit promise to avoid hard border is ‘unshakeable’

In a speech in Belfast British prime minister Theresa May said her commitment to avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was “unshakeable”.

 

The Government has rejected a fresh appeal from Theresa May to reopen the withdrawal agreement, saying it was concerned about London’s “unreasonable expectations” about changes to the backstop.

Following a speech by Mrs May in Belfast on Tuesday, Government Buildings issued a short statement which welcomed her commitment to ruling out a hard border in the future, but insisted: “The EU position is clear and not for changing. There is scope to adjust the political declaration but not the withdrawal agreement.”

Mrs May is visiting Northern Ireland where she was meeting with business leaders, followed by engagements with the political parties on Wednesday. She reiterated her commitment to the peace process, and said her promise to avoid a hard border was “unshakeable”.

“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.”

However, Mrs May added: “I can only deliver on the commitments we have made if I can get a deal through the UK parliament. And meetings with MPs across the house showed that I can only get a deal through parliament if legal changes are made to the backstop.”

Borderlands

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Mrs May heads to Brussels on Thursday, where she will meet with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, for talks. Yet despite the intensive engagement senior Irish and EU sources say there is unlikely to be any serious negotiations with the British government until a series of votes on the British government’s plans take place in the House of Commons next week.

Senior EU figures

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will go to Brussels on Wednesday for a series of meetings with senior EU figures, including Mr Juncker, head of the European Council (the body of EU leaders) Donald Tusk, and the commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Mr Varadkar will also meet Irish commissioner Phil Hogan, and the European Parliament’s Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt.

A statement from Mr Varadkar’s office on Tuesday night said he would discuss the preparations for a no-deal outcome and potential supports for Ireland in that eventuality.

Mr Varadkar is also scheduled to visit the North on Friday.

A team of European Commission officials visited Dublin on Tuesday for a series of meetings with Government departments on no-deal preparations.

The group cancelled a planned press briefing at the last minute, but The Irish Times understands that the items for discussion included customs and sanitary controls at ports and airports, the UK “landbridge”, energy, business preparedness, agriculture and fisheries, taxation issues, transport, medicines, judicial co-operation, the common travel area and data-sharing.

Belfast Agreement

Meanwhile, a group of prominent Irish-Americans, including former US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Gary Hart and five former US ambassadors, have written to Mr Varadkar and Mrs May expressing alarm that the Belfast Agreement could be jeopardised because of Brexit.

The letter, which has been signed by 40 senior figures, comes ahead of Tánaiste Simon Coveney’s visit to Washington this week, where he will discuss Brexit with senior Irish-American figures on Capitol Hill. It reflects growing concern in US circles about the impact of Brexit on the Border in Northern Ireland.

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