May to visit Belfast on Tuesday in attempt to sell Brexit deal

MPs to begin debating withdrawal agreement next week ahead of December 11th vote

Theresa May will visit Belfast on Tuesday in an attempt to win public support in Northern Ireland for her Brexit deal, which the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has promised to vote against. MPs will start debating the withdrawal agreement next week and will vote on it on December 11th, two days before EU leaders are due to meet in Brussels.

The prime minister will meet students, academics and community and religious leaders at an event at Queen's University Belfast before meeting representatives from the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance. She will urge them to listen to business groups such as Manufacturing NI and the Ulster Farmers' Union who support her deal and fear the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal.

“This deal avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This has been at the forefront of my mind throughout the negotiations. It has been especially clear to me when I have visited communities along the border in Northern Ireland and seen first hand how important it is that the unique circumstances local employers face are recognised in any agreement,” Mrs May said on Monday.

“They need to be able to trade freely across the Border with Ireland and have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom’s market. This deal makes that possible and that’s why, across Northern Ireland, employers large and small have been getting behind it.”


Hostile questions

Mrs May faced more than two hours of mostly hostile questions in the House of Commons about the agreement, which was endorsed by EU leaders in Brussels on Sunday. Dozens of Conservatives have indicated that they will join Labour and other opposition parties in voting against it next month.

The prime minister admitted she was not entirely happy with the deal but said it delivered Brexit in a way that protected British interests and that no alternative was available.

“No one knows what would happen if this deal does not pass. It would open the door to more division and more uncertainty, with all the risks that will entail,” she said.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the deal as the worst of all worlds, leaving the UK with no say over future rules and no certainty about the future. He said it would oblige the country to choose in 2020 between extending a transition period as a rule-taker from Brussels and triggering a backstop that would create a regulatory border down the Irish Sea.

“Is it in the national interest for the prime minister to plough on when it is clear that this deal does not have the support of either side of this House or the country as a whole? Ploughing on is not stoic; it is an act of national self-harm,” he said.

Mrs May's de-facto deputy, David Lidington, briefed Labour MPs about the deal on Monday night in an effort to persuade some of them to cross the floor in support of the government rather than risking a no-deal Brexit.

Trump intervention

US president Donald Trump said on Monday that the Brexit deal sounded like it would be good for the EU, but he expressed concern about where it left trade between the UK and the United States.

“I think we have to take a look seriously whether or not the UK is allowed to trade. Because right now if you look at the deal, they may not be able to trade with us,” he said. “And that wouldn’t be a good thing. I don’t think they meant that.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times