My Brexit plan will work for Northern Ireland says PM in key Belfast speech
And Tory leader says EU must now ‘evolve’ its position as she pledges to fight hard border
Theresa May has pledged that her Brexit plan will work for Northern Ireland and promised that her government won't wash its hands of efforts to avoid a hard border.
Speaking in Belfast yesterday, the Prime Minister said the EU must "evolve" its Brexit position and not rely on unworkable proposals if the negotiations are to move forward.
Addressing business and political leaders in the Waterfront Hall, Mrs May said her White Paper offered a viable solution that honours the Good Friday Agreement, delivers on the referendum result, and benefits the UK economy.
The Prime Minister also said she regretted that Northern Ireland had been without an Executive for 18 months and she called for a fresh round of talks to restore power-sharing.
But she stressed that her government would not impose an agreement as any deal had to be reached by the local parties.
Mrs May referred to the importance of the Union several times and said she wanted it to endure "for generations to come".
In a speech well-received by the DUP, she said: "A government I lead will never be neutral in our support for the Union. We will always make the case for it."
DUP leader Arlene Foster, UUP leader Robin Swann, SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, and Alliance leader Naomi Long all attended the event.
Mrs May was asked by the Belfast Telegraph for her views on DUP MP Ian Paisley's failure to disclose two luxurious holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government, and if she was worried that his likely 30-day suspension from the House of Commons would cost her a key ally in knife-edge Brexit votes.
She answered neither question directly, saying it was up to the House to decide Mr Paisley's punishment. She said her confidence and supply deal with the DUP was "delivering key decisions that are important across the whole UK".
On the political stalemate at Stormont, Mrs May said: "It is a matter of frustration and regret that after enjoying the longest period of unbroken devolved government since the 1960s, Northern Ireland has now been without a fully functioning executive for over 18 months.
"I want to see the Assembly and the Executive back, taking decisions on behalf of all of the people of Northern Ireland. They deserve no less."
The Prime Minister said that current PSNI Deputy Chief Constable, Drew Harris, who is shortly to become Garda Commissioner, was "an amazing symbol of the progress made over the last 20 years". She said: "We will continue to work with our friends in the Irish government, who have been our close partners in that progress including at next week's British and Irish inter-governmental conference."
Turning to Brexit, Mrs May reiterated her commitment to ensuring there was no hard border.
"You only have to speak to businesses near the border, as I did yesterday, to see that the notion of a hard border is almost inconceivable," she said.
"Thousands of people who cross and re-cross between the UK and Ireland in the normal course of their daily lives cannot be subject to a hard border as they go to work, visit a neighbour, or go to the supermarket. Neither would it be feasible for firms whose supply and distribution chains span the border."
Mrs May said people living along the border remembered the customs border posts and security installations, and "disruption caused to lives and livelihoods".
Any form of border infrastructure was "an alien concept", Mrs May said. She acknowledged that "no technology solution to address these issues has been designed yet, or implemented anywhere in the world, let alone in such a unique and highly sensitive context as the Northern Ireland border".
In a clear reference to supporters of a hard Brexit, Mrs May said some argued that the UK should just declare it won't impose any border checks after Brexit and if the EU requires the Irish government to do so, the blame will lie with Dublin.
"This is wrong . . . this issue arises because of a decision we have taken. We can't solve it on our won, but nor can we wash our hands of any responsibility for it. So we must work together to solve it."
Mrs May said a seamless border was a "foundation stone" of the Good Friday Agreement.
A new border "that cuts Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK" was as unacceptable as a hard border, she added.
The free trade deal on offer from the EU excluding Northern Ireland and "creating a border within the UK" was a non-runner, the Prime Minister said. She claimed her white paper worked for both the UK and the EU and offered "a principled and practical Brexit".
"It delivers on the referendum result. It takes back control of our borders, with an end to free movement," she said.
"The whole of the UK will be outside the customs union and single market, free to sign trade deals with countries around the world.
"It will also protect and strengthen our Union by ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and no border in the UK," she added.