May disowns backstop deal

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After a chaotic week of u-turns and narrow votes at the Westminster parliament, the British Prime Minister has denounced a previously agreed ‘backstop’ plan to ensure no border checks are introduced across the island of Ireland.

The Tory leader spent two days in the north of Ireland this week in a visit which Sinn Fein described as being about Mrs May “coming to pick a fight with Ireland and to pick a fight with the European Union”.

In her address at the Waterfront Hall, May claimed the EU’s backstop proposal to prevent a hard border would “dislocate” the north of Ireland from Britain.

Although the north of Ireland voted against Brexit, Mrs May cited the consent principle of the Good Friday Agreement, “that it will always be for the people of Northern Ireland to decide ‘without external impediment’ what their constitutional future should be”.

She said a “customs border within our own country [sic] is something I will never accept and I believe no British prime minister could ever accept. And as they made clear this week, it is not something the House of Commons will accept either.”

Her intransigent address repeated other unionist themes and offered no solutions to the Brexit crisis.

Speaking after meeting the Tory leader, Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald said Mrs May had “set aside” an agreement made with the EU in December by rejecting the backstop.

“We were told that the British prime minister came to Ireland to listen and to reassure - it is clear that she is not listening to community and business interests and seeks only to reassure the DUP.”

“Theresa May claims to want to avoid a hard border in Ireland, while pursuing a policy that will deliver a hard border,” she added.

May’s visit appeared to have been organised by the DUP, on whom she is critically dependent at Westminster. Her sole engagement outside Belfast was in the DUP leader’s constituency, and had dinner with DUP figures while only allowing brief access to the other main parties.

Following a rebellion by hard-right Tories, May allowed her white paper on Brexit to be heavily amended, including one measure that would prevent any customs checks for goods traded between Britain and the north of Ireland. That move alone could ensure a hard border across Ireland.

The 26 County Tanaiste Simon Coveney has revealed contingency plans to recruit more than 500 customs and veterinary inspectors in preparation for a hard Brexit.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Coveney said some elements of Downing Street’s white paper would be the basis of agreement but others “might not be workable”.

“We want to de-dramatise some of these things, which are the basis of exaggeration and headlines across media outlets, and get down to a focused negotiation to try to work out what in the white paper can be accommodated and can be the basis of agreement and in what areas do we need new thinking to ensure that the EU’s interests are protected while also negotiating a fair deal for Britain,” he said.

However, Sinn Fein expressed concern after the Dublin government said it was open to the possibility of a new deal on the border.

A comment by the 26 County Finance Minister, Paschal Donohoe, that Dublin will consider a new plan if it is better than the one on the table, appeared to move away from the so-called ‘bulletproof’ agreement touted by 26 County Taoiseach back in December.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Taoiseach last week “equivocated and failed to stand over” the backstop as agreed.

“Since then, we have seen further chaos in Britain with emboldened Brexiteers seeking to abandon the December backstop altogether,” she said.

“Our citizens, our economy, and our businesses require certainty. There have been reports that the EU is preparing to amend the backstop arrangements. We need clarity on this point.

“The Taoiseach is outlining plans for failure, but has yet to outline his plan for success.

“He needs to make clear, with our EU partners, that they still stand over the backstop as agreed, that will make good on the agreement made in December, and how they intend to bring legal clarity and certainty in advance of the withdrawal agreement.”

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