An aggressive and staunchly unionist speech has increased fears that British Prime Minister Theresa May is prepared to ignore warnings and crash Britain out of the European Union early next year.
Emboldened by the jingoism of tabloids who described a failed EU summit in Austria last week as “an ambush”, May and her supporters have insisted that a technological solution can allow Britain to leave the Customs Union without creating new border controls in Ireland.
That was rejected by EU leaders in an apparent shock for Theresa May. It was suggested that she had hoped to be able to deliver a positive report at the annual Tory party conference without making any concessions on the border.
With that impossible, and faced with criticism from hardline xenophobic ‘Brexiteers’, May turned to Thatcherite belligerence for her response. She addressed the news cameras from Downing Street, with two Union Jacks as a backdrop.
Turning the Good Friday Agreement on its head, she argued the 1998 peace deal actually supports the integration of Ireland’s Six Counties with Britain, a long-standing unionist ambition.
“Creating any form of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would not respect that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, in line with the principle of consent, as set out clearly in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” she declared.
“It is something I will never agree to - indeed, in my judgement it is something no British Prime Minister would ever agree to. If the EU believe I will, they are making a fundamental mistake.”
She also said that it would be “unacceptable” for the Six Counties to retain its current status within EU customs controls.
“We will never agree to it. It would mean breaking up our country,” she declared, without irony. “We will set out our alternative that preserves the integrity of the UK”, she added, before concluding with a militant-sounding: “We stand ready”.
After two years of negotiations, what that alternative might be is still anybody’s guess. But May’s suggestion that it would need to be endorsed by the defunct Six County Assembly bewildered commentators, and was seen as a code for stating that a DUP veto would apply -- something that the DUP were quick to confirm.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party warmly welcomed Mrs May’s rejection of the idea of a ‘border in the Irish Sea’.
“I think the prime minister’s very firm reiteration of not breaking up the United Kingdom, of the importance of what she has described as our precious union, is coming across very, very strongly,” he said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the British government of “belligerence” and said May was doubling down on an “unworkable” Brexit.
“Despite the EU attempting to give the UK encouragement to take steps that will be in the best interests of our citizens the prime minister has chosen to continue with her failed strategy,” he said.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said May’s statement had been billed as a major one but proved to be nothing more than “an exercise in tired rhetoric”.
“Rather than accepting that her so-called Chequers plan fails to resolve fundamental issues, Theresa May has engaged in deflection,” she said.
“Her focus has unfortunately remained on infighting within her own party and her pact with the DUP, instead of coming to an acceptable negotiating position.”
“More than eighteen months into talks and with time running out, she continues to show scant regard for Ireland, for our rights, for our economy and for our Agreements.”