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Downing Street vows there will be no attempt to rewrite Good Friday Agreement

Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz

By Andrew Woodcock

Downing Street has dismissed reports that Theresa May is considering rewriting the Good Friday Agreement or seeking a separate deal with Dublin in order to break the Brexit deadlock over the so-called backstop.

Mrs May is due to come back to the Commons to spell out her next steps to build a Commons majority for a Brexit deal amid signs she is still unwilling to give ground on her central demands.

Following the crushing defeat last week of her agreement with Brussels, the Prime Minister will make oral and written statements to the House explaining how she intends to proceed.

And her official spokesman made clear that she is focusing on the possibility of changes to the backstop mechanism, designed to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if a broader trade deal cannot be agreed.

"It's clear already that a significant number of colleagues have expressed concerns around the backstop," said the spokesman.

"That's one of the areas that we are going to be looking at."

Following the defeat of Mrs May's withdrawal agreement by 230 votes last week, he said: "It is clear that if we are going to get Parliament to support the deal, we are going to have to come forward with something that is different".

Asked whether the PM was considering changes to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles, the spokesman said: "No. The Prime Minister has been clear on multiple occasions that we are committed to upholding the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and to delivering a solution that avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland."

On the prospect of a bilateral agreement with the Republic, the PM's spokesman said: "It's not something we are looking at."

European Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness, an MEP for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael party, said a new treaty between the UK and Ireland to replace the backstop was "not an option".

And the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who held talks with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in Brussels, ruled out the prospect of a separate deal between London and Dublin, telling RTE: "As you know... we are working 27 as a team, a single team and we negotiate as one."

Poland's Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz suggested the deadlock could be broken by setting a five-year time limit on the backstop.

He told Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita: "If Ireland asked the EU to amend the agreement with the British on the backstop so that it would apply temporarily - let's say five years - the matter would be solved.

"It would obviously be less favourable for Ireland than an indefinite backstop, but much more advantageous than no-deal Brexit."

Mr Czaputowicz said that London and Dublin were "playing chicken" over the border and risked a "head-on collision" in which Ireland stood to "lose the most".

A senior member of Angela Merkel's Government, Industry Minister Peter Altmaier, warned against trying the EU's patience for political reasons.

"Sympathy, patience and readiness to wait until the UK's position will be clarified are of utmost important to avoid the worst," warned Mr Altmaier.

"They should not be misused for party politics. Large majority wants to exclude hard Brexit - in the interest of the UK and beyond."

And the European Commission made it very clear that Brussels believes the ball is now in London's court on Brexit, with a spokesman telling reporters: "Don't look for answers from Brussels.

"Now is the moment for London to speak, not for us."

Mrs May is set to table a "neutral" motion to be debated and voted on - along with any amendments tabled by MPs - on January 29. Neutral motions are usually unamendable, but in this instance MPs will be able to express an alternative to the Government's plan.

Government sources said she would be holding further talks with MPs, as well as business leaders and trade unionists, throughout the week in an attempt to find a way forward.

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