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I'll never be neutral about Northern Ireland, vows Prime Minister

By Andrew Woodcock

Theresa May has said her government “will never be neutral” on the future of Northern Ireland as talk of a referendum on a united Ireland grows.

Theresa May has said her government “will never be neutral” on the future of Northern Ireland as talk of a referendum on a united Ireland grows.

Her comments during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday come as Sinn Fein increases pressure for a border poll following the Brexit vote.

UUP MP Danny Kinahan pressed the government to campaign for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

Addressing Mrs May, he said: “Could I ask the Prime Minister to confirm that in the extremely improbable event that a border poll should take place regarding the future of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom during her premiership, that the government will fully support any official remain campaign?

“Just as the government has done both in regard of the EU and indeed Scotland.”

Mrs May said: “You are absolutely right, today of course we do give effect to the democratic decision of the people of the United Kingdom who voted for us to leave the European Union.

“And it was a call to make the United Kingdom a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

“We are of course, within that, fully committed to ensuring that the unique interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced as we establish our negotiating position and our position has always been clear that we strongly support the Belfast Agreement, including the principle of consent that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to determine. But as our manifesto made clear, we have a preference that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, and we will never be neutral in expressing our support for that.

“And that’s because I believe fundamentally in the strength of our union.”

Later, Jeremy Corbyn said there should be a referendum on Irish reunification, if the Assembly wants one.

The Labour leader told the BBC’s Andrew Neil: “If the Northern Ireland Assembly wants to have one they should be allowed to.”

Mr Corbyn said the people of Ireland must carry on being able to “pass freely” across the border, a status that could be imperilled when Northern Ireland is no longer part of the European Union.

Mrs May is facing resistance from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Parliament to her goal of conducting negotiations on Britain’s future trade relations with Europe at the same time as talks on arrangements for Brexit.

Simultaneous divorce and trade talks are a key demand in the Prime Minister’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, triggering the two-year process of negotiating Brexit.

Mrs May told MPs that the delivery of Article 50 letter was “an historic moment from which there can be no turning back”.

It would implement the democratic will expressed by voters in last year’s referendum by taking Britain out of the EU in “one of the great turning points in our national story”, she said.

But Mrs May was accused of trying to make a trade-off between security and commerce, as the letter warned that failure to reach agreement on trade would mean “our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”.

The European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said: “Security is far too important to start to bargain it against an economic agreement. What we will never accept is that there is a trade-off between one and the other.”

In her letter to Mr Tusk, Mrs May said it was “necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU”.

But Mrs Merkel gave a frosty reception to the PM’s plea, saying that talks must first clarify how to unravel the commitments, rights and duties which the UK has entered into over its 44-year membership.

“It is only if we have sorted that out that we can next — and I hope soon — talk about our future relationship,” said the German Chancellor.

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