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ANALYSIS: Theresa May asks the right questions but we need answers

Ian Knox cartoon 16/08/17: Mrs Feadfaidh sets out to light touch the Nationalist population 

THERESA May's decision to intervene on the crucial discussions around the border through The Irish News speaks volumes about the constituency she wishes to address.

Before last year's EU referendum, this newspaper was vocal in highlighting the many flaws in the Brexiteers' approach.

During the campaign, it all appeared academic but the shock result changed everything, putting Ireland and the Irish border to the fore in the Brexit debate.

We've waited 14 months for our concerns to be addressed and while the British prime minister's platform today contains no answers, it at least addresses many of the right questions.

Northern Ireland's unique vulnerability in this gradually unfolding saga can't be overstated. Its history and geography give it a certain 'special' status, while the internationally endorsed Good Friday Agreement provides its citizens with distinctive rights.

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Mrs May goes some way to acknowledging the north's past through her commitment to "explore the potential" of continuing EU structural funds, which have amounted to more than £1.5 billion over the past two decades.

Her pledge is doubly qualified but at least she realises the role of these funds in embedding peace in a divided society.

While the amount Brussels has made available to victims of the Troubles is a mere fraction of what has been drawn down through PEACE funding initiatives it too has proved vital in the post-conflict situation, and the prime minister's acknowledgement of its role is important.

But while the EU money well running dry is major concern among the north's population, it is arguably not the greatest.

Free movement of people and goods north to south and east to west has been taken for granted over the past 25 years but suddenly both appear in jeopardy.

Every day, tens of thousands of people use hundreds of crossing points to move between Northern Ireland and the Republic for reasons ranging from social and business to holidays and healthcare. Any disruption to this situation would be catastrophic not just for those who cross the border regularly but for the region as a whole.

Mrs May gives no guarantees and, as might be expected ahead of negotiations with the EU, proffers no solutions on how the EU frontier across Ireland will operate, yet she does at least restate her desire to maintain free movement between the island's two jurisdictions and between the north and Britain.

Though how that will work in reality is the key challenge to both the British and Irish governments, and the EU.

And of course, the prime minister's assurances on Irish citizens in the north retaining their status as EU citizens is to be welcomed, though any other outcome would've effectively ripped-up and binned the Good Friday Agreement.

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