Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May puts ball in EU's court by insisting stance on border has to change

By David Young

The Prime Minister will today tell the EU that it must come up new proposals in response to her Brexit plan if it wants to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Theresa May will also restate her firm commitment to the Union - vowing that Northern Ireland will not be treated any differently to the rest of the UK after Brexit.

And she will urge the European Union to "evolve" its position on Brexit and not fall back on "unworkable" ideas.

In a speech at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, the Prime Minister will tell her audience that Brexit offers Northern Ireland, and the UK as a whole, "a stronger and brighter tomorrow".

She will seek to calm fears about the impact of withdrawal on the province, by pledging to deliver a deal that "works for the whole UK, including Northern Ireland".

Mrs May will say that following the publication of the Government's white paper agreed at Chequers, it is "now for the EU to respond".

She will add: "Not simply to fall back onto previous positions which have already been proven unworkable. But to evolve their position in kind."

The PM will also highlight what she described as "Northern Ireland's tremendous and cherished contribution" to the national life of the UK.

Mrs May's speech comes the day after new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab headed to Brussels for the first time to take part in talks with Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator.

Mr Barnier told reporters yesterday that it was "a matter of urgency to agree a legally operative backstop", saying: "We need an all-weather insurance policy."

Mrs May's message will be delivered just hours before Mr Barnier is due to deliver the EU's verdict on the Chequers plan, after a meeting of ministers from the 27 other member states.

In the event of a hard 'no deal' Brexit, the EU wants a backstop that would effectively create a border down the Irish Sea between the islands of Ireland and Britain.

Mrs May will today tell a Waterfront Hall audience that she firmly rejects this.

Following on from her meeting yesterday with businesspeople in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, the Prime Minister will reaffirm in her speech how a hard border will never be acceptable for the people of Northern Ireland - nor the UK Government.

The PM will set out how the EU's backstop plan breaches the Good Friday Agreement, would destabilise the local economy, and would leave people here without their own voice in trade negotiations.

"The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal 'third country' customs border within our own country is something I will never accept - and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept," Mrs May will say. "And as they made clear this week, it is not something the House of Commons will accept either."

The PM will say that in implementing the UK-wide referendum result and leaving the European Union, the Government has a duty to ensure that the outcome works in Northern Ireland, as well as Britain.

She is to say: "For all of us who care about our country, for all of us who want this Union of nations to thrive, that duty goes to the heart of what it means to be a United Kingdom and what it means to be a government.

"Our job is not to deal with Brexit in theory, but to make a success of it in practice for all of our people."

The PM will say that a hard border would not be acceptable for the thousands of people who cross and recross every day, or for firms whose supply and distribution chains span the frontier.

The UK has set out its proposals for resolving the border issue through a close future partnership between the UK and the EU - although the agreement reached at Chequers could yet unravel.

The Government believes its proposed free trade area on goods will avoid the need for customs and regulatory checks at the border, meeting its firm commitments in respect of Northern Ireland.

Mrs May will also state that - following the publication of the white paper based on her Chequers summit - the ball is now in the EU's court, and she will call on EU negotiators to respond positively to the UK's proposals.

The PM will state her firm determination to "complete what we have started" in the Brexit talks.

"We can negotiate a new relationship with the EU that works in our mutual interest," she is due to say.

"One that safeguards our Union and allows the whole UK to thrive in the years ahead.

"A brighter future for Northern Ireland, where we restore devolution and come together again as a community to serve the interests of the people."

The Prime Minister's Belfast speech comes as part of a two-day visit.

One woman who welcomed Mrs May to Fermanagh told the Prime Minister she was a like a "bionic woman". The visit was organised after an invitation was issued by Fermanagh MLA and DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party has a 'confidence and supply' arrangement to support Mrs May's Conservative administration.

Former First Minister Mrs Foster said yesterday: "This visit will enable Mrs May to speak with people who live, work and travel across the much talked about Irish border on a daily basis.

"She will hear first-hand examples of how people see both challenges and opportunities for their sectors as we leave the European Union."

During her visit, the Prime Minister is also holding discussions with Northern Ireland's political parties on the issue of the collapse of Stormont.

Political opponents have already branded her visit to the border as "too little, too late".

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said. "I am quite clear what she will hear today; she'll hear about the catastrophic implications of Brexit, the fear and trepidation of the business community in terms of what comes next for them.

"We can't withstand being outside the customs union and the single market.

"Theresa May needs to realise that we will not be collateral damage to her for own reckless Tory agenda."

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