The prime minister yesterday again ruled out any arrangement that leads to a border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Theresa May reiterated her pledge to avoid such an outcome during a visit to the Province as part of her whirlwind tour of all four countries of the UK one year to the day before Brexit becomes operational.
After Mrs May toured a dairy farm outside Bangor, the News Letter asked her about the fact that she had ruled out the European Union’s recent attempt to codify in law a commitment to avoid a hard land border between NI and the Republic in a way which would have moved the border to the Irish Sea instead.
However, we pointed out, her Brexit negotiator David Davis had not ruled out the so-called backstop option entirely, but just the EU’s interpretation of it.
We asked Mrs May (see full question and answer below): “[This leaves] the anxiety among unionists that at some late stage or in some sudden deal Northern Ireland stays in the single market and customs union unlike the rest of the UK, therefore a border in the Irish Sea.”
The prime minister said that both the UK and Irish government’s preferred option was a solution “through the overall relationship that the UK will negotiate with the European Union”.
Then, Mrs May added, there’s “a plan B which would be if there needed to be any specific Northern Ireland arrangements and then of course plan C [the backstop]”.
The prime minister said: “... the plan C that the European Commission put into their draft legal text actually does not properly reflect or fairly reflect the joint report in December because in the joint report in December, of course, we set out those three stages with that backstop but also made clear that businesses here in Northern Ireland should be able to trade freely in the internal market of the UK in the future, ie no hard border, no border down the Irish Sea.”
The DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, welcomed Mrs May’s visit and what he said it signified.
The North Belfast MP said: “The visit by the prime minister is a strong and sure signal that Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom will not be left behind as we leave the European Union in one year’s time.
“Over the past 12 months Brussels has sought to use Northern Ireland’s circumstances to weaken the UK hand in negotiations. In response, we have consistently emphasised that any border deal which separates Northern Ireland from Great Britain economically or politically would be unacceptable.
“We welcome fresh commitments made today to protecting the ‘integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole’ and ensuring ‘no new barriers’ within the UK internal market as a result of Brexit. The prime minister’s actions and words display essential, stable stewardship of the Union at a critical time.”