Message from May’s Belfast speech is she wants EU to blink

Analysis: PM seems to imply time-limited backstop would dig her out of ever-deepening hole

Theresa May  indicated she wasn’t so much rejecting the backstop, or performing a U-turn, but rather she needed a modified backstop. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

Theresa May indicated she wasn’t so much rejecting the backstop, or performing a U-turn, but rather she needed a modified backstop. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA

 

Theresa May, as is her wont, was short on specifics about what she wants from Dublin and Brussels to resolve the Brexit logjam but it did seem implicit from her speech to Belfast businesspeople that a time-limited backstop would dig her out of an ever-deepening hole.

That was backed up by Downing Street sources who said the “indefinite nature” of the backstop was the key reason the House of Commons rejected by a massive 230 votes the EU-UK withdrawal agreement last month. “We need to see change,” said one of the sources.

The British prime minister indicated she wasn’t so much rejecting the backstop, or performing a U-turn, but rather she needed a modified backstop.

“I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future,” she said.

The business people she addressed in the Belfast office of the US insurance giant Allstate could have been forgiven for being rather miffed, considering many of them went out on a limb to endorse her original withdrawal agreement and its backstop proposal.

That necessitated involving themselves in the tricky business of Northern Ireland politics and annoying the DUP in particular, who view the backstop as an unacceptable dilution of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom. No business leader wants to be in such a bind, but still they supported her.

May made no apologies in Belfast while offering the excuse that she could “only deliver on the commitments we have made if I can get a deal through the UK parliament”.

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On Thursday in Brussels, May holds her first meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker since the withdrawal agreement agreed last November was soundly rejected by the House of Commons.

Before Brussels, May will be at Stormont on Wednesday to meet the leaders of the North’s five main parties. Sinn Féin and the SDLP will demand that she hold firm on the current backstop while Arlene Foster and the DUP might allow that they could live with a time-limited backstop.

There was absolutely no sense from her Belfast speech or from what Downing Street sources had to say that May will be producing any detailed plan to the North’s political leaders on Wednesday.

Equally, no one is expecting the Brussels meeting to lead to a resolution but it was clear from her speech on Tuesday that she hopes for or maybe even expects some moderation of the EU’s current adamant position on the backstop, notwithstanding the EU and Dublin’s insistence that there is no room to manoeuvre.

How that all pans out as March 29th – Brexit day – looms ever closer and closer is anybody’s guess. The message from May on Tuesday was that she wants the EU to blink.

The prime minister did not appear perturbed by the prospect of former first minister David Trimble legally challenging the backstop because, he argues, it contravenes the Belfast Agreement. She said her attorney general Geoffrey Cox had made clear the backstop respected “all aspects of the Belfast Agreement”.

And in words that would have pleased Dublin, she said the Belfast Agreement was “not just the bedrock of stability here in Northern Ireland” but that “its principles are fundamental to the security and success of the whole United Kingdom”.

The prime minister also engaged in the impossible task of trying to please both unionists and nationalists. “A fundamental belief in the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is part of my political heritage as a Conservative and Unionist - and that will never change,” she said.

“But the unionism I believe in is one that respects absolutely the central importance of Irish identity to those people in Northern Ireland who claim it.”

May was mainly in reassuring mode in Belfast. In her speech she made several references to the British government ensuring there will be no hard border regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming negotiations.

“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,” she pledged.

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