Tuesday 22 October 2019

Theresa May: Hard Border to force united Ireland

  • Shambles: May postpones Brexit vote in Commons

  • No deal: Varadkar to intensify preparations for crash out

  • No renegotiation: EU insists there is no movement on deal

Prime Minister Theresa May was the butt of one of the new jokes (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Prime Minister Theresa May was the butt of one of the new jokes (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Dramatic scenes: Prime Minister Theresa May makes her statement in the Commons yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Kevin Doyle and Laura Larkin

A United Ireland will move dramatically closer if the 'backstop' is removed from the Brexit deal, British Prime Minister Theresa May has said.

In a warning that caused significant surprise in Dublin, Mrs May openly admitted that voters in Northern Ireland may want to join the Republic rather than see Border posts re-erected.

"They (in Northern Ireland) do not want a return to a hard Border. And if this House cares about preserving our union, it must listen to those people because our union will only endure with their consent," she said.

On another day of shambolic politics in Westminster, the prime minister delayed today's so-called 'meaningful vote' on the Withdrawal Agreement and vowed to seek further reassurances from the EU on how the backstop will work.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and EU leaders have totally rejected the idea of reopening negotiations that took more than 18 months to complete.

Sources in Dublin questioned what further guarantees could be provided, noting that the acceptance of a UK-wide backstop rather than one specific to the North was already a major concession.

However, it was Mrs May's suggestion that Northern Ireland could leave the United Kingdom that caused most surprise.

"Businesses operate across that Border. People live their lives crossing and re-crossing it every day.

"I've been there and spoken to some of those people. They do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decisions we have taken," the prime minister said.

"They do not want a return to a hard Border. And if this House cares about preserving our union, it must listen to those people because our union will only endure with their consent."

Protest: A demonstrator dressed as Theresa May sells Brexit fudge at Westminster. Photo: PA
Protest: A demonstrator dressed as Theresa May sells Brexit fudge at Westminster. Photo: PA

The Good Friday Agreement gives prominence to the 'principle of consent' which affirms the legitimacy of the aspiration to a united Ireland while recognising the current wish of the majority in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

An Irish Government source told the Irish Independent: "We have been very careful not to talk about a united Ireland during this, so to hear it from the British prime minister was extraordinary."

Mrs May's U-turn came after she and senior ministers had spent days insisting the vote would go ahead, despite the scale of opposition.

Her statement in the House of Commons yesterday is also a clear signal that her relationship with the DUP, which had been propping up her government, is all but over.

The DUP's Sammy Wilson accused Mrs May of being "prepared to be humiliated by arrogant EU officials and arrogant Irish politicians".

The party's leader Arlene Foster spoke to Mrs May by phone yesterday and told her: "The backstop must go." She said a new deal would have to be secured and too much time had been "wasted".

EU Commission President Donald Tusk ruled out renegotiating the deal including the backstop. However, he signalled some hope for Mrs May confirming the EU is "ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification".

In a nod to the heightened possibility of a cliff-edge Brexit, Mr Tusk said a special European Council meeting on Brexit this week will also discuss preparedness for a no-deal scenario.

His remarks echoed earlier comments by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who said the only deal on the table is the one including the Irish backstop, warning "it's not possible to reopen that aspect of the agreement without reopening all aspects".

Fianna Fáil urged the Government to ramp up preparations here for a no-deal scenario following the chaotic scenes in Westminster.

Mrs May is now expected to canvass EU leaders in a bid to secure additional reassurances for MPs on the backstop. It is believed she is seeking a declaration of sorts on the backstop which would underline its temporary nature in an effort to win over critics in the House of Commons.

However, last night there were no immediate plans for a meeting between the embattled Tory leader and the Taoiseach before the Brussels summit.

The pound plummeted to a 20-month low as events played out in Westminster. However, the markets are set for continued uncertainty as there has been no date set for a new vote on the deal.

Speculation was mounting that it would be January at the earliest before the treaty is again put to MPs. A deal must be ratified by January 21.

British Trade Secretary Liam Fox said he would prefer a post-Christmas vote rather than "rushing" through the deal.

The arch Brexiteer warned without a "hard and fast" guarantee that the UK would not be bound indefinitely to Europe by the backstop, the two outcomes on the table were a crash out next March or no Brexit at all. The prospect of a snap election in the UK has also come into sharper focus.

Amid ferocious backlash to the deal on the table and the decision to postpone the vote, Mrs May was faced with shouts of "resign" as she finished outlining her decision.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was last night resisting calls from smaller opposition parties and his own MPs to table a vote of no confidence in Mrs May.

Irish Independent

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