May tells north's business leaders of her unshakeable commitment to preventing hard border
THERESA May has suggested that she is seeking "changes" to the controversial backstop in her Brexit deal, rather than its total removal from the UK's EU Withdrawal Agreement.
In a speech in Belfast, the prime minister restated her "unshakeable" commitment to avoiding a hard border in Ireland after Brexit, pledging: "The UK government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen."
But asked how she could convince the people of Northern Ireland to accept a Brexit deal, which was stripped of the backstop, Mrs May said: "I'm not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn't contain that insurance policy for the future.
"What Parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop."
It was in that light that she was working with MPs, the Dublin government and the EU to find a way to meet the commitment to take Britain out of the EU on March 29 with a deal that avoided a hard border, she said.
Mrs May is due to travel to Brussels on Thursday for her first face-to-face talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk since the Withdrawal Agreement they reached last November was rejected by the House of Commons.
She will seek to secure changes that can persuade MPs to support her deal in a series of votes expected on February 14.
MPs voted last week for an amendment tabled by Conservative grandee Sir Graham Brady and backed by the prime minister which "requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border".
There was immediate concern from Conservative Brexiteers over Mrs May's apparent indication that she was instead seeking "changes" to the backstop arrangement, intended to keep the border open if no broader trade deal is reached after Brexit.
A source from the European Research Group of eurosceptic Tory MPs told the Press Association: "Even if she doesn't mean what she said, we still do."
Challenged over whether she had made a U-turn, Mrs May said: "There is no suggestion that we are not going to ensure that in the future there is provision for this – it's been called an insurance policy, the backstop – that ensures that if the future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, there will be arrangements in place to ensure that we deliver no hard border."
Downing Street said the government was looking at a series of "work streams" – including putting in place alternative arrangements to the backstop, or changing it to include a time limit or an exit mechanism.
"All of those are being taken forward urgently. This work is ongoing," the prime minister's official spokesman said.
"I think you should view it as part of a process of getting the changes, which we need in order for Parliament to be able to support the deal.
"We have been very clear there will be an insurance policy. We are absolutely committed to there being no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland."
In her speech to an audience of Northern Irish business leaders, Mrs May said she wanted to "affirm my commitment to delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which is unshakeable".
The prime minister acknowledged the importance of a seamless border and how the existing arrangements had helped "deliver peace and prosperity".
She said: "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."
"Northern Ireland does not have to rely on the Irish government or the European Union to prevent a return to borders of the past.
"The UK government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen."
She announced a review by Home Secretary Sajid Javid of issues surrounding difficulties faced by residents of Irish nationality in bringing family members into Northern Ireland.
And she pledged to work with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to "continue to maintain – and indeed enhance – the strongest possible bilateral partnership between the UK and Ireland" after Brexit.
Responding to a threat from former Northern Ireland first minister Lord Trimble to seek judicial review of the backstop, Mrs May said that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox had already provided legal guidance that her Brexit deal respects all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.
Announcing Mrs May's planned visit to Brussels, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: "The prime minister will come along to spell out to us her ideas for what happens next.
"President Juncker has been in constant contact with her and will look forward to seeing her... to pursue these discussions.
"But we have to repeat what you are aware of, that is that the EU's position, the commission's position, is clear that we are awaiting once again to see what the prime minister has to tell us."
Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk were also set to meet Mr Varadkar on Wednesday.
In Westminster, the working group bringing together Tories from both sides of the party was continuing efforts to agree an alternative to the backstop.
A meeting on Monday involving Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson, along with former Remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green, was described as "detailed and constructive" by the Brexit department.
Meanwhile, Business leaders have urged the Prime Minister to end political brinkmanship which risks "chaos" in Northern Ireland.
Aodhan Connolly said a no-deal Brexit would destroy 40 years of supply chain development with the Republic of Ireland.
He is director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), the lobby group representing large firms like fashion outlets House of Fraser and Next and supermarkets Sainsbury's and Lidl.
Mr Connolly said it could take four years for the average trade deal to be agreed following a no-deal exit from Europe.
"We cannot afford fiscal chaos in Northern Ireland for four months," he added.
He said tariffs, customs and checks will add costs to the average family shopping basket in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Mr Connolly said: "It is time for the political games and brinkmanship to end, and time to provide the certainty that businesses and households across the UK need.
"Any alternative arrangements must provide the same guarantee of continued frictionless, tariff-free trade and movement of people on the island of Ireland as the backstop does.
"While Northern Ireland will feel the bite of a no-deal Brexit first and hardest, it will nonetheless be felt across the whole country."
Another business leader said the Prime Minister understood the peace process complexities.
Tina McKenzie represents small businesses which make up the majority of firms.
The Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland policy chairwoman was part of the round-table meeting with Theresa May in Belfast.
Ms McKenzie said the Prime Minister understood how the local economy could be affected by a hard Brexit.
She added: "She understands that the Good Friday Agreement is there and that people's rights need to be protected, whether they are British, Irish, Northern Irish, neither.
"She understands the complexities of this place and she has given a commitment that she won't risk that with these negotiations."