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Theresa May says commitment to avoid hard border in Ireland 'unshakeable'

Prime Minister Theresa May said her commitment to avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was "unshakeable".

In a speech in Belfast she said: "I'm here today to affirm my commitment, and that of the UK Government, to all of the people of Northern Ireland, of every background and tradition."

She added that she was committed to the Good Friday Agreement and its successors.

She said she wanted to "affirm my commitment to delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which is unshakeable".

While she had tried to make the case for the Withdrawal Agreement, she had had to accept it would not get through Parliament in its current form.

"I fought hard to make the case for the deal as it stands," she said.

"I believed it could command a majority in the House of Commons but I have had to face up to the fact that in its current form it cannot and the need for changes to the backstop is the key issue.

"While there were those in Northern Ireland who favoured it, it is also true that the backstop is not supported by the two main Unionist parties here and it also influenced MPs in England, Scotland and Wales in voting against the deal."

The Prime Minister acknowledged the importance of a seamless border and how the current arrangements had helped "deliver peace and prosperity".

She said: "While I have said that technology could play a part and that we will look at alternative arrangements, these must be ones that can be made to work for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland."

Northern Ireland does not have to rely on the Irish Government or the European Union to prevent a return to borders of the past. The UK Government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen. Theresa May

Theresa May said she was "determined" to work towards a solution to the Northern Irish border question that can command support from across the country, as she reiterated that there will be no hard border.

She said: "I know that the prospect of changing the backstop and reopening the Withdrawal Agreement creates real anxieties here in Northern Ireland and in Ireland, because it is here that the consequences of whatever is agreed will most be felt.

"I recognise too that the majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain and that many will feel that once again decisions taken in Westminster are having a profound and in many cases unwanted impact in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

"So I'm determined to work towards a solution that can command broader support from across the community in Northern Ireland."

Mrs May added: "We stand by our commitment in the Joint Report that there will be no hard border - including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls."

Mrs May said: "I know this is a concerning time for many people here in Northern Ireland.

"But we will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland, that commands broad support across the communities in Northern Ireland and that secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament, which is the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

"As we do so, I hope we can also take steps to move towards the restoration of devolution, so that politicians in Northern Ireland can get back to work on the issues that matter to the people they represent.

"For, ultimately, the measure of this moment in Northern Ireland's history must be more than whether we avoid a return to the challenges of the past. It must be how, together, we move forwards to shape the opportunities of the future.

"As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, it is a profound honour and duty to play my part in shaping that future and to do my utmost to support the peace, prosperity and progress that can give the people of Northern Ireland the brightest future for generations."

Asked how she could convince the people of Northern Ireland to accept a Brexit deal which was stripped of the backstop, Mrs May said: "I'm not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn't contain that insurance policy for the future.

"What Parliament has said is that they believe there should changes made to the backstop.

"And it is in that vein, in that light, that we are working with politicians across Westminster, across the House of Commons, but also will be working with others - with the Irish Government and with the EU - to find a way that enables us to maintain our commitments that we have set, very clearly, for no hard border, but to do it in a way that provides a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration for the future that can command support across the House of Commons and therefore that we will be able to ratify with the EU such that we leave on March 29 with a deal."

Northern Ireland parties react

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill accused the Prime Minister of a "dangerous political U-turn" over her stance on the backstop.

"Theresa May must understand that no amount of warm words and platitudes will be acceptable to Sinn Féin, citizens or businesses here," she added.

"Only the legally binding backstop can guarantee certainty, prevent a hard border and protect the Good Friday Agreement framework. We told Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer this yesterday and we will tell Theresa May that tomorrow.

"The DUP do not speak for the people of the north of Ireland - and are doing a huge disservice to our people, businesses, farming industry and key sectors of the economy by misrepresenting our interests."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "Despite claims that upon entering Number 10 [Theresa May] felt her 'most profound' responsibility was to serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, her actions have shown otherwise.

"We will be very clear tomorrow that the future of Northern Ireland cannot be left to majorities in England and Wales. The British Government must deliver a deal that does not undermine the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and the only plausible way to do that is to deliver on the Backstop."

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the backstop beaches the Good Friday Agreement and urged the Prime Minister to remove it from the Withdrawal Agreement.

"I welcome the fact that even the DUP now recognise that the Belfast Agreement secures Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom," he said.

"Anyone who understands the Belfast Agreement knows full well that the backstop is incompatible with it and the Government needs to make this point loud and clear. Once that basic fact is recognised and accepted by Dublin and Brussels, then perhaps we can make real progress. 

"The Withdrawal Agreement and the Backstop must be amended to respect the Belfast Agreement and to both recognise and defend the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”

DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly said Theresa May must press the EU for the necessary legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

"Northern Ireland cannot be left as a rule taker, running to Dublin to seek changes to the rules governing our core industries," she added.

"Whilst there have been positive voices from Brussels about the need to seek creative solutions, such commentary will now be tested. There needs to be a political will to reach a consensus which works for the United Kingdom and also the European Union."

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