Theresa May has said she will not allow changes to the Brexit withdrawal agreement that give no insurance for the people of Northern Ireland, suggesting she would reject technology that disrupted border communities.
Speaking in Belfast, she said MPs wanted to see changes to the backstop that could command support across the Commons but accepted that there were anxieties about replacing the arrangement.
The backstop outlined in the withdrawal agreement would mean the UK remains in an effective customs union with the EU to prevent border checks at the Northern Irish border after the transition period, unless and until an alternative solution is found.
“I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that does not contain that insurance policy for the future,” she said, when asked about a deal without a backstop.
In her speech, May sounded a note of caution about the alternative arrangements that some MPs have been working on to replace the backstop. She said a seamless border was “the cornerstone around which the community in Northern Ireland has come together to deliver peace and prosperity”.
I will not do anything to put that at risk,” she said. “So while I have said that technology could play a part, and that we will look at alternative arrangements, these must be ones that can be made to work for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
Tory MPs from a number of different Brexit factions are working on a proposal for alternative technological arrangements to the backstop, known as the Malthouse Compromise after the housing minister, Kit Malthouse, who brought the groups together.
The prime minister said she would never allow a hard border to be erected on the island of Ireland. “Northern Ireland does not have to rely on the Irish government or the European Union to prevent a return to borders of the past,” she said at a speech in Belfast. “The UK government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen.”May said she understood that the “prospect of changing the backstop and reopening the withdrawal agreement creates real anxiety” in Northern Ireland but it was necessary to get the deal through the Commons.
Preserving peace was one of her “most profound responsibilities”, she said, going on to describe the Troubles beginning when she was 12 and the signing of the Belfast agreement when she was 41. “Violence has not been eliminated but it has been reduced to rates that would once have been impossible to imagine,” she said.
May said she had come to terms with the fact that her deal could not command a majority, after its historic defeat last month by 230 votes.
“I have had to face up to the fact that in its current form, [the deal] cannot [command a majority in the Commons] and that changes to the backstop is the key issue.
“I can only deliver on the commitment I have made if I can get a deal through the UK parliament.”
The audience of Northern Ireland business owners and executives gave lukewarm applause to her speech. Several said they were frustrated that her plan to avoid a hard border and disruption to trade remained unclear. “We’re none the wiser,” said one.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said he hoped a meeting with May after her speech would clarify how she intended to reconcile promises on the backstop with avoiding a hard border. “You’re talking about the disintegration of the supply chain. Northern Ireland is in the eye of the storm.”
Journalists challenged May over her credibility with Northern Ireland business leaders given that she had mobilised them to campaign for a deal with the backstop, only to dump it. Connolly said she still had credibility. “We realise she is in a hard political game. But we need certainty and we need it now.”
The prime minister is to return to Brussels on Thursday to seek fresh concessions despite the EU’s insistence that the bloc will not renegotiate the Brexit deal. The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, will host the prime minister just 24 hours after his meeting with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
May is expected formally to seek the reopening of the withdrawal agreement after the passing of the Brady amendment last week calling for “alternative arrangements” to replace the contentious Irish backstop.
The prime minister told her cabinet ministers on Tuesday that the objective was to find a legally binding way to ensure the UK could not be trapped indefinitely in the backstop, though alternative arrangements, a time-limit or a unilateral exit mechanism. May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, was in Brussels overnight, ahead of the prime minister’s visit, meeting “a combination of European politicians and officials”, according to No 10.
Downing Street would not be drawn on whether May would present just one or a number of possible options when she meets Juncker. “Work is ongoing urgently on all three proposals” the spokesman said.
May will spend the night in Belfast and meet representatives from the UUP, Alliance, SDLP, DUP and Sinn Féin, and the leader of the Northern Ireland Conservatives on Wednesday morning.