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My commitment to seamless border in Ireland absolute. says PM May

By Suzanne Breen

The Prime Minister has denied stabbing Northern Ireland's business community in the back over Brexit and has suggested that instead of binning the backstop, she is seeking changes to it.

In a keynote address to business leaders in Belfast yesterday, she pledged her "unshakeable" commitment to avoiding a hard border.

"The UK Government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen," she vowed.

But asked by the Belfast Telegraph why the business community should trust her given that some felt she "shafted" them with her U-turn on the backstop, Mrs May suggested the controversial mechanism would remain.

"Let's be very clear about this. You've used the phrase U-turn in your question," she said.

"There is no suggestion that we are not going to ensure that in the future there is provision for this. It's been called an insurance policy, the backstop - that ensures if the future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, there will be arrangements in place to ensure that we deliver no hard border. Our commitment to that remains."

Sources in the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs expressed concern that the Prime Minister's line appeared to have softened.

Mrs May is due to travel to Brussels tomorrow for her first face-to-face talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker since the withdrawal agreement was rejected by Parliament. MPs voted last week for an amendment tabled by Tory grandee Sir Graham Brady requiring that the backstop is replaced with "alternative arrangements" to avoid a hard border.

Asked how she could convince people here to accept a Brexit deal stripped of the backstop, the Prime Minister 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 be changes made to the backstop."

She said it was in that context that she was working with MPs, the Irish Government and Brussels to find a way for the UK to leave the EU on March 29 with a deal that avoided a hard border.

Dublin accused Mrs May of harbouring unrealistic expectations over the backstop.

"We welcome the Prime Minister's restatement of the commitment to having no hard border," it said.

"Her statement about the need to recognise shared identities in Northern Ireland was especially welcome.

"However, we still have concerns about unrealistic expectations regarding what can be achieved regarding the backstop.

"The EU position is clear and not for changing. There is scope to adjust the political declaration but not the withdrawal agreement."

In her speech, the Prime Minister acknowledged the importance of a seamless border and that current arrangements had helped "deliver peace and propserity".

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

"Northern Irleand does not have to rely on the Irish Government or the EU to prevent a return to the borders of the past. The UK Government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen."

Mrs May pledged to work with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after Brexit to "continue to maintain - and indeed enhance - the strongest possible bilateral partnership between the UK and Ireland".

She said: "As we leave the EU, we will need to establish new ways of coming together to develop our unique relationship.

"For example, the Irish Government has suggested annual meetings where the Prime Minister and Taoiseach, together with senior ministerial colleagues, come together to discuss the big issues of the day.

"We will also want to strengthen our economic relationship and have already together identified areas like construction and smart cities as ripe for enhanced collaboration."

She announced a review by Home Secretary Sajid Javid of issues surrounding difficulties faced by residents of Irish nationality in bringing family members into Northern Ireland.

In terms of a way forward on a Brexit compromise, Downing Street yesterday said the Government was looking at a series of "work streams" - including putting in place alternative arrangements to the backstop, or changing it to include a time limit or an exit mechanism.

Belfast Telegraph

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