May to visit Northern Ireland in search for ‘alternative arrangments’ to Irish backstop

Prime Minister Theresa May during a previous visit to Northern Ireland. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA.

Prime Minister Theresa May during a previous visit to Northern Ireland. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA.

PA Archive/PA Images

Theresa May will visit Northern Ireland to deliver a speech that will attempt to reassure the people there that she “will find a way to deliver Brexit” that honours commitments including avoiding a hard border with Ireland.

May will hold talks with Northern Ireland’s political leaders including the DUP’s Arlene Foster, who has promised to tell the prime minister the proposed border backstop “drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent” and would effectively create a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile in Westminster, the working group bringing together senior Brexiteers and Remainers in the Tory party will continue efforts to agree alternatives to the backstop along the lines of the Malthouse Compromise.

Talks involving Conservatives including Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson along with former Remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green will continue in Whitehall, chaired by Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay.

The first meeting was described as “detailed and constructive” by the Brexit department.

But Brussels has restated its opposition to any attempt to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, insisting the backstop was the “only operational solution” to the border question.

In her speech, May will say: “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.”

MPs voted last week to say they would only back May’s Withdrawal Agreement if the backstop was replaced by “alternative arrangements”.

In her speech, May will say she will find a solution “that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland” and “secures a majority in the Westminster parliament, which is the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland”.

And she will call for “steps to move towards the restoration of devolution” so that Northern Ireland’s politicians “can get back to work on the issues that matter to the people they represent”.

May will say: “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.”

Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said alternatives to the backstop were “wishful thinking”.

He said: “The Irish protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement already allows for alternative arrangements or alternative solutions to the backstop and if they’re there they can replace the backstop.

“The problem is that none of those ideas around alternative arrangements stand up to scrutiny, we have certainly not seen any that have.”

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