Theresa May has appealed to Northern Ireland to see that her draft Brexit deal puts it in a unique and “fantastic” trading position - and secures its position within the UK.
The Prime Minister, who will fly to Brussels on Wednesday for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of a final EU vote on the deal on Sunday, also cited the widespread local support for her deal from NI business, farming and also policing leaders here, while rejecting constitutional concerns raised unanimously by unionist parties.
Negotiators from both sides are now “working tirelessly to fill in the detail of our long term future relationship with the EU” ahead of the final vote in Brussels, she said.
In her platform piece, she essentially repeated the argument often heard in recent days - but rejected by the DUP - that her deal would economically give NI the best of both EU membership and freedom to trade with the rest of the world.
“The challenge of Brexit has always been to continue our deep trading links and security cooperation with the EU in our new relationship, whilst freeing us to take advantage of the opportunities, such as an independent trade policy,” she said.
“This deal strikes that balance, and puts Northern Ireland in a fantastic position for the future.”
She added: “Under this deal the future is certainly bright for Northern Ireland. It will be a gateway to both the EU market and the rest of the UK’s market. With a business-friendly regulatory regime, and strong representation in Westminster, it will remain an attractive place to live, invest and do business.”
Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom is “guaranteed, with the Belfast Agreement and the consent principle enshrined in this deal” she added.
Mrs May named checked NI business organisations that have cautiously welcomed for her draft text - the CBI, FSB, IoD and Chamber of Commerce, noting that her Withdrawal Agreement will provide “the clarity and certainty that business needs” and allow them time to adjust to the new relationship, thus protecting jobs and investment.
The Prime Minister also quoted the Ulster Farmer’s Union as saying that a no deal would be especially challenging for NI, albeit, the UFU had also said it was making no comment on the wider political implications.
Finally, she also appealed to the authority of Chief Constable George Hamilton to sell the fruits of her labour, noting that his strong emphasis on the need for UK-EU cooperation in intelligence sharing for NI.
“I welcome the progress we have made on data exchange and extradition but we need to go further,” she said. “This is one of the most crucial elements of our discussions with the EU this week.”
The referendum was won on three main issues: borders, laws and money, she said.
“This deal will deliver on all three. It makes clear that freedom of movement is coming to an end and that the UK is free to develop a sovereign immigration system that works for every part of our country. This includes retaining the Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland, and ensuring that we have access to the international talent that our economy needs.”
The deal will also respect devolved law making and further underlines the reason why NI parties should cooperate to reconvene the Assembly, she said.
Mrs May also rejected the pan-unionist concern - shared by some Tories, Labour MPs and leading media commentators - that the so called backstop would subject NI to more stringent EU regulation than the rest of the UK, and thereby create an ‘Irish Sea border’.
The backstop is intended to avoid a hard Irish border if no wider EU-UK agreement has been reached on the issue by the time of withdrawal in 2021, she noted.
“Although it is important to restate that both sides agree that we never want to use it, and will both be legally bound to use our best endeavours to reach agreement on the future in good time, I understand and share some of the concerns that have been expressed,” she said.
“I believe the following three points make this an acceptable insurance policy: first, there is the opportunity to extend the Implementation Period instead of entering the backstop; second, the Government will keep regulations consistent across the whole of the UK in order to minimise any checks or controls and ensure no divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; and third, this is expressly temporary, with a mechanism by which it can be terminated. And of course, in this situation, Northern Ireland would benefit from frictionless access to both the EU and the rest of the UK markets.”
She closed by saying she firmly believed that progress over the next few weeks can “mark the beginning of the healing process” to address division that Brexit has caused in families and communities.
“As Prime Minister, I am determined to do my job and deliver the best deal possible. It will then be time for MPs to do their job and to choose: move forward with this deal in the national interest, or go back to square one with all the chaos that would entail”