Sam McBride: Amid an evasive Brexit fog, the backstop re-emerged after PM’s speech

Prime Minister Theresa May at a community centre during her visit to Belfast
Prime Minister Theresa May at a community centre during her visit to Belfast
Share this article

As an exercise in eloquent evasiveness, Theresa May’s speech was in keeping with how she has approached the entire Brexit negotiations.

The significance of yesterday’s event was not so much the substance of what was said, but the symbolism of the fact that at this 11th hour of the process the prime minister was coming to Belfast to address the people of Northern Ireland and staying overnight to meet their political leaders.

Mrs May went out of her way to emphasise to both unionists and nationalists that she understands why they are fearful of what is unfolding. But there was disappointment for anyone hoping that with just over 50 days to go until Brexit day the prime minister was going to set out a clear pathway to securing a deal with the EU.

Instead, with the point of departure from the EU within touching distance, Mrs May told the invited audience that she is now “working on a solution” to how Brexit will impact on the Irish border that will “command broader support across the community in Northern Ireland”.

It was an attempt to be all things to all men which will have fuelled the fears of those who believe that she is out of ideas and cynically running down the clock in the hope that the looming reality of no deal prompts MPs to suddenly swing behind her deal.

It took a question at the end of the speech to reveal something of what is really going on within government at this point. Asked by UTV’s political editor Ken Reid to explain how she could expect nationalists in Northern Ireland to accept a deal which does not include a backstop, the prime minister made clear that – contrary to what some Brexiteers had hoped – there will definitely be a backstop in any deal.

She said: “Well, I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t include that insurance policy for the future.”

That will concern some Brexiteers and some of the DUP who want to see the backstop removed in its entirety. Just two months ago, DUP leader Arlene Foster told Mrs May that she wanted to see her “bin the backstop”.

But even that revelation from Mrs May was ambiguous. ‘A backstop’ could mean almost anything and it is the specifics of that arrangement which will be significant.

However, there is hope for Mrs May – at least from the DUP. When pressed yesterday, Mrs Foster refused to say that she is still demanding the removal of the backstop.

It now seems that the DUP is prepared to accept a time-limited backstop, or perhaps some other mechanism. The real test of that will be the reaction of Brussels – and Dublin.