Flanked by two Union Jacks in the State Downing Room of No 10, Theresa May reacted to her mauling in Salzburg with a sharp sense of affront. Let’s face it, a woman can still register hurt dignity more convincingly than a man. The setting was in fact improvised; it had been moved inside from the street because of a deluge. And in a faint but uncomfortable echo of her disaster at last year’s party conference, there was a delay because the power points failed to work. However this time, when she got going, she didn’t falter or fade.
Throughout this process, I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same. A good relationship at the end of this process depends on it.
In principle she was implacable – several times – on the backstop. .
Yesterday Donald Tusk said our proposals would undermine the single market. He didn’t explain how in any detail or make any counter-proposal. So we are at an impasse.
…. We both agree that the Withdrawal Agreement needs to include a backstop to ensure that if there’s a delay in implementing our new relationship, there still won’t be a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But the EU is proposing to achieve this by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the Customs Union. As I have already said, that is unacceptable. We will never agree to it. It would mean breaking up our country.
We will set out our alternative that preserves the integrity of the UK. And it will be in line with the commitments we made back in December – including the commitment that no new regulatory barriers should be created between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK unless the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree. 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.
“It is something I will never agree to – indeed, in my judgment it is something no British prime minister would ever agree to. If the EU believe I will, they are making a fundamental mistake.”
I want to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that in the event of no deal we will do everything in our power to prevent a return to a hard border.
The EU should be clear: I will not overturn the result of the referendum. Nor will I break up my country.
“We need serious engagement on resolving the two big problems in the negotiations. We stand ready.”
Naturally the DUP’s Nigel Dodds welcomed the tone of her remarks. But as the Belfast Telegraph reports, he also had in mind the Independent’s unattributed report yesterday that UK government is expected to accept some checks taking place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“Amid some speculation coming out of Salzburg about border issues, people need to remember that the December Joint Report, which is the basis for the so-called backstop through Article 49, also contained an explicit commitment in Article 50. “This states that the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”
One possible concession revealed by the Independent could see customs compliance checks away from Irish Sea ports, but not regulatory checks. The EU has also suggested that “most checks can take place away from the border at the company premises or in the markets”.
The combination of concessions – with Britain accepting regulatory checks at ports and the EU moving some customs checks in-land – appears to clear the path for a potential solution.
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster has said previously that trade barriers put up between Northern Ireland Great Britain is a red line for her.
As well as assuring the DUP Mrs May seemed to targeting sceptics in her own party, not so much on the Chequers plan, but on her steadfastness and her position as prime minister and Conservative leader.
Away from the rhetoric, I can’t wait for those revised proposals on the border. Mrs May’s reference to Assembly consent hardly throws the doors open to regulatory changes. Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds may have lept up to check the locks. But at least a possibility has been floated.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London