Theresa May's Belfast speech suffused with a strong pro-Union message
Theresa May has set out a pragmatic case for Northern Ireland remaining within the Union and has said that she will always argue for a constitutional structure which enables four nations to pool and share their resources.
In a speech which reassured the DUP because it was suffused with pro-Union rhetoric, the Prime Minister repeatedly stressed her own unionism and the importance of the Union enduring for future generations.
The extent of Mrs May’s reassurance to unionism may also be linked to next week’s first meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference for more than a decade – a meeting about which some unionists have been nervous.
Reminding the audience in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall that the full name of the Conservative Party is the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’, Mrs May said that name “carries a profound significance for me” and that for the Tories unionism was a “central tenet of our political philosophy”.
Recalling that at the end of the Second World War Sir Winston Churchill had said that without Northern Ireland “the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched”, Mrs May went on to speak about the future, saying that “the greatest strength of our Union is its potential”, with what she described as an “outward-looking United Kingdom after Brexit”.
Mrs May then presented a pragmatically pro-Union case for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, highlighting the Province as a “TV and cinema powerhouse”, somewhere which attracts more than two million tourists a year, “great” universities and “a burgeoning cyber-security sector”.
She said that Northern Ireland “makes a major contribution to our Union, and it also derives great benefits from being an integral part of the UK” and that “every family and every business benefits from the strength and security that comes from being part of the world’s fifth largest economy”.
Alluding to the huge multi-billion subvention which Northern Ireland receives each year from Westminster, she said that the “principle of pooling and sharing our resources that defines the UK supports public services that people in Northern Ireland rely on”.
Making clear – as David Cameron did before her, but in contrast to Labour – that “a government I lead will never be neutral in our support for the Union”, Mrs May said she wanted the Union “to endure for generations to come”.
However, in an attempt to balance her pro-Union comments, the Prime Minister also said: “But I also respect the fact that a substantial section of the population here identify as Irish and aspire to a future within a united Ireland.
“I will always govern in the interests of the whole community in Northern Ireland and not just one part of it.
“We are absolutely committed to parity of esteem, and just and equal treatment irrespective of aspiration or identity.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster, who was at the speech, afterwards welcomed the “theme and tone” of Mrs May’s speech.
Mrs Foster, who hosted the Prime Minister in her Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency on Thursday, said: “The support for the Union as well as the clear statement that there can be no hard border nor new internal borders in the United Kingdom was good news.”
l Morning View, page 10