Belfast Telegraph

May never considered reopening Good Friday Agreement - further backstop talks planned with DUP

By Gareth Cross

Prime Minister Theresa May has told MPs that she never considered amending the Good Friday Agreement, while promising further talks with the DUP over the Irish border backstop.

Mrs May was speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, as she unveiled her Brexit 'Plan B' following the defeat of her Brexit withdrawal agreement.

The PM opened proceedings by condemning the dissident car bomb attack in Londonderry on Saturday. She paid tribute to the bravery of the local police and community. 

She said that Northern Ireland could never be allowed to return to the "violence and terror of the past".

Mrs May acknowledged that the government's approach to Brexit "had to change" and called on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to engage in the negotiation process after he refused to meet her last week.

She acknowledged the widespread concern that the UK could be headed for a no-deal Brexit, but said the only valid way to rule it out was through an approved exit deal with the EU.

The PM said she did not believe that there was the necessary support for a second referendum on Brexit and ruled out extending Article 50 to prolong negotiations.

She said a second referendum could set a dangerous precedent for those who want to break up the UK.

Mrs May said that, as part of her new approach, she was planning further discussions with the DUP and members of her own party over concerns surrounding the backstop.

The DUP believe that the backstop, a plan to avoid a hard border, would effectively create a trade border in the Irish Sea and could leave Northern Ireland indefinitely linked to the EU.

"I will be talking further this week to colleagues, including in the DUP, to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House," Mrs May said.

"And I will then take the conclusions of those discussions back to the EU."

As part of her new plan she said she would seek opinions from across the political spectrum as well as the civic and business communities.

Mrs May announced a greater role for the devolved institutions and said she would attempt to engage with Northern Ireland's elected representatives in the absence of an Assembly.

She told MPs that the government would provide more information about negotiations to MPs behind closed doors, in a bid to head off renewed use of so-called "humble addresses" to obtain confidential information.

Mrs May announced that the £65 fee for EU citizens applying for so-called settled status to secure the right to remain in the UK after Brexit will be scrapped.

"The next phase of testing of the scheme for EU nationals to confirm their status has launched today," she said.

"And having listened to concerns from members and organisations like the Three Million Group, I can confirm today that when we roll out the scheme in full on the 30th March the Government will waive the application fee so that there is no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay and anyone who has or will apply during the pilot fee will have their fee reimbursed."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds condemned the Londonderry bomb attack and thanked Mrs May for recognising there are "core issues" with the Withdrawal Agreement.

"Can I take it from what the PM has said that she is really serious now, in terms of getting a consensus that can get this through the House, with the necessary legal changes to the Withdrawal Agreement?," he said.

"Yes," said Mrs May. "Obviously what I want to do is to identify the way forward in relation to dealing with the issues that have been raised by the backstop - I've referenced the two key issues on its potential permanency and the impact on the union in my statement - and find the best way we can resolve those issues that will command support from this House."

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