British Prime Minister Theresa May has flown to Belfast to reassure the citizens of Northern Ireland that she is determined to achieve a Brexit deal that can avoid a return to a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Speaking to business leaders on Tuesday during a two-day trip to the region, May said she understood local concerns about the current deadlock in Westminster, where Conservative MPs continued to discuss “alternative arrangements” to the backstop – the backup mechanism designed to avoid a hard border set out in the withdrawal agreement May struck with the European Union (EU).
“I know the prospect of changing the backstop and reopening the withdrawal agreement creates real anxieties here in Northern Ireland and Ireland, because it is here that the consequences of whatever is agreed will most be felt,” May said.
She reiterated her commitment to uphold the principles of the Good Friday peace agreement. “People on either sides of the border will be able to live their lives as they do now,” she said.
May said there will be no customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, adding that she will strengthen bilateral relations between the United Kingdom (UK) and the Republic of Ireland.
“We will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland, that commands broad support across the communities and that secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament,” May said, adding that she would sit down for talks with regional political parties the following day.
Last month, the British Parliament gave May a mandate to go back to Brussels and renegotiate the backstop after it voted overwhelmingly against the deal on January 15.
The EU has said the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation, while signalling that some changes might be possible in the political declaration that sets out the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
Theresa May is due to meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Thursday.
The border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland will be the UK’s only land border with the European Union after Brexit, currently scheduled on March 29.
The border has been open since the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, which largely ended 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. A return of infrastructure on the border would have political, social and economic consequences for people in the region.
May met local business leaders and farmers, whom she had previously tried to get behind the withdrawal agreement arguing the backstop would ensure cross-border trade can continue after Brexit.
The backstop would only come into place if the UK and the EU failed to reach a comprehensive trade agreement by December 2020, the end of the transition period set out in the withdrawal agreement.
Hard-Brexiteer conservative MPs fear the backstop would tie the UK in a customs union with the EU indefinitely. The EU is looking to protect its single market and has said the backstop would only be a temporary arrangement. It has so far refused to put a legally-binding time limit on it.
Largest export market
The Republic of Ireland is Northern Ireland’s largest market, accounting for 31 percent of its total exports in 2016, which is 2.1 percent of the UK’s GDP. Farming is particularly reliant on cross-border trade.
Local businesses have urged the government to accept the backstop and avoid a disastrous no-deal Brexit leading to a hard border – which is what the UK is heading towards, while it attempts to renegotiate a backup plan with the EU that aims at avoiding precisely that scenario.
May’s ally in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is concerned the backstop would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.
DUP leader Arlene Foster told BBC on Tuesday that “the current backstop” was toxic “to those of us living in Northern Ireland, and indeed for unionists right across the UK, because it would cause the break-up of the UK into the medium and longer term.”
She said “intransigence” in Brussels and Dublin was leading to a no-deal Brexit.
A majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, particularly in the constituencies along the border.
“Words about commitment to preventing a hard border and protecting the Good Friday agreement will be taken with a grain of salt by people listening here, given [May’s] apparent u-turn on the backstop last week in parliament,” Katy Hayward, a sociology professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, told Al Jazeera.
“The levels of trust which are already quite poor between nationalist and remain parties and the UK government, those levels of trust have diminished now,” she added.
Hayward, who has done extensive research on the border and its communities, also pointed out that the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement already contains “means by which the protocol can be ended or phased out”.
“It feels like she’s coming to Belfast but she’s still speaking to the Tory party,” Hayward said.