PM devoted to NI but seems to focus on land border concerns

News Letter editorialNews Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
Northern Ireland is fortunate to have a prime minister who takes such a close interest in it.

Theresa May is the latest in a succession of premiers who have had that concern and support for the Province, including Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron. Gordon Brown, while he was in no way unfriendly, perhaps showed least interest in NI of recent Downing St inhabitants.

Yesterday, Mrs May flew into the Province to make a major speech about Brexit at a time when the Irish border threatens to bring about the collapse of the EU withdrawal negotiations.

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Mrs May, in her address at Allstate in Belfast, went into some detail as to her interest in Northern Ireland, and her awareness of it, the Troubles having begun when she was aged nine and the Belfast Agreement having been signed when she was aged 41. She emphasised both her unionism but also her sort of unionism that respects the rights of people within the UK who have an Irish outlook.

The prime minister was seeking to reassure both opponents of Brexit, who are anxious about trade disruption and the psychological trauma of a new, harder border, and also unionists, who are concerned about a border in the Irish Sea.

She said she would not accept a customs border in the Irish Sea, either in past EU talks or in the future, but also described her opposition to a hard border as “unshakeable”.

Mrs May was serving notice in her speech that there would have to be some movement on the backstop, hence the unhappy reaction to her words from the anti Brexit parties in NI.

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But there were things to give unionists concern. Her greatest emphasis seemed to be on the land border question and protecting the Belfast Agreement, without challenging Irish narratives on that deal, as Lords Trimble and Bew have done.

And there was a troubling passage in her speech which referred to the absence nationalist voices at Westminster or any Stormont at all. Neither happened by an act of nature, but were choices made by SF. Our PM, while clearly devoted to NI, seems unlikely ever to say that.