My successor as PM has to deliver a seamless Irish border, says Theresa May
Theresa May has thrown down the gauntlet to her successor, saying that whoever replaces her in Downing Street must deliver on both a "seamless border" in Ireland and the UK's decision to leave the European Union.
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Mrs May last night also warned the two men vying to be her successor that one of their "first and greatest" duties as Prime Minister will be to strengthen and preserve the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In a speech in Stirling, Scotland, the Prime Minister said: "I care passionately about our Union. I certainly do not underestimate the scale of the challenge it faces, but I am optimistic about its future.
"The Union has proved a remarkably durable and flexible relationship over the centuries, evolving to meet the needs and aspirations of the people of these islands.
"I believe if those of us who care for it act wisely, if we draw on its great strengths and think creatively about how to build on them in the years ahead, its future can and will be a bright and prosperous one."
Earlier this week, both Conservative leadership candidates - Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt - told party members in Northern Ireland they would bin the backstop if they became Prime Minister. Tory and DUP Brexiteers fear the backstop could lock the UK into a customs union with the EU, preventing it from striking lucrative new trade deals and fulfilling the promises of the 2016 referendum.
But last night, Mrs May stood by the backstop, but admitted that "a major barrier to my success in getting a deal agreed was the challenge posed by the UK's land border with another EU member state".
"At the heart of the Belfast Agreement, which enabled the people of Northern Ireland to move beyond that past into a shared future, was a compromise," she said.
"That people who identify as Irish can live in Northern Ireland but, to all intents and purposes, operate across the whole of Ireland in their day to day lives and in their business activities without any semblance of a border. That compromise was enabled by having a seamless border.
"The backstop insurance policy we agreed with the EU, which would have been activated only if we were unable to agree our new relationship within the implementation period, respected that compromise.
"And the future relationship will need to respect it.
"It will be for my successor to resolve that issue and I will not today seek to provide any advice on the matter.
"I will simply say this. There can and must be no false choice between honouring the solemn commitments of the Belfast Agreement and delivering on the decision of the British people in the EU referendum.
"We must do both."
The PM, who finishes her term in Downing Street in just over two weeks, also urged the parties to work together to restore Stormont.
"The devolution settlement brought about by the Belfast Agreement was an example for the world in uniting people behind a shared future," she said.
"And as the parties in Northern Ireland continue in talks to restore that devolution, the hope and history surrounding it should be a powerful reminder of the imperative of not letting that progress slip away."
While both Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt have said they would take the UK out of the European Union without a deal if necessary, Mrs May cautioned against that, saying it "would have undoubted consequences for our economy and for the Union".
Instead, the outgoing Prime Minister insisted securing a "good" Brexit deal was vital to the future of the UK.