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Theresa May to visit Northern Ireland to make assurances over hard border

Theresa May arriving at Downing Street on Monday (Picture: PA)
Theresa May arriving at Downing Street on Monday (Picture: PA)

Theresa May is set to visit Northern Ireland to make assurances she doesn’t want a hard border between it and the Republic.

The prime minister will go there on Tuesday and make a speech in which she will confirm her government’s “absolute commitment” to avoiding a hard border after Brexit.

Her trip, which will also take in talks with local businesses, comes as she prepares to return to Brussels to demand the reopening of the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

But shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, himself on a visit to Northern Ireland on Monday, said he doubted Mrs May would succeed in agreeing an alternative to the Irish backstop with the EU.

“The prime minister and her team have spent over 12 months trying to find an alternative to the backstop,” he said.

“We have only got the backstop because they couldn’t find an alternative.

“So, for her to go back now saying ‘I don’t want the backstop, I want an alternative’ is to stand the last 12 months on its head.

People in Northern Ireland and the Republic have no desire for a hard border (Picture: PA)
People in Northern Ireland and the Republic have no desire for a hard border (Picture: PA)

“The prime minister has effectively run down the clock and therefore it is impossible to see a way forward without a backstop.

“So, whilst we have got concerns that we have set out about the backstop, we do accept the principle that there has got to be a backstop.”

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Meanwhile, Downing Street scotched rumours of an early election on June 6. Asked whether Mrs May was considering a vote on that date, her official spokesman said: “No, absolutely not. Any suggestion otherwise is categorically untrue.”

The spokesman also said it was “simply not true” that the government was drawing up plans for the evacuation of the Queen from Buckingham Palace in the case of civil unrest after a no-deal Brexit.

Rebel Tory MPs have been invited into the heart of government to thrash out changes to the Brexit deal which she hopes can overcome massive opposition in Brussels and Westminster.

At the heart of the changes being demanded by Conservative Eurosceptics is the removal of the backstop, which is designed to keep the Irish border open in the absence of a broader trade deal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that agreement on the Irish border was still possible.

But she said that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be renegotiated, so questions about the border would have to be addressed in the Political Declaration on future EU/UK relations.

Speaking during a trip to Japan, Ms Merkel said that “one has to be creative and we must listen to one another” on the border issue, adding: “But we must hear from Great Britain how they envision that.”

The trip came days after a new EU-Japan trade deal came into force and a day after Nissan confirmed it was ditching plans to build its X-Trail SUV in Sunderland.

The company said the decision was largely driven by changing demand for diesel models but added that “uncertainty around the UK’s future relationship with the EU is not helping companies like ours to plan for the future”.

Hardline Eurosceptics in the European Research Group and Remain-supporting former ministers were due to gather in the Cabinet Office for the first meeting of the new Alternative Arrangements Working Group (AAWG).

Theresa May is under pressure to come up with an alternative to the backstop (Picture: PA)
Theresa May is under pressure to come up with an alternative to the backstop (Picture: PA)

ERG deputy chairman Steve Baker, former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson and Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh will sit around a table with former education secretary Nicky Morgan and ex-cabinet office minister Damian Green to examine the feasibility of the so-called Malthouse Compromise.

Downing Street confirmed that they will meet under the chairmanship of Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on each of the first three days of this week and did not rule out further meetings beyond that date.

The PM’s spokesman said the group would be moving “urgently” to explore ideas “as soon as possible” for Mrs May to take to Brussels. Downing Street has previously suggested that these might revolve around a time-limit or unilateral brake on the backstop or technological solutions to keep traffic flowing over the border.

MPs are working on an alternative to the Irish border question (Picture: PA)
MPs are working on an alternative to the Irish border question (Picture: PA)

The spokesman declined to confirm a claim from Home Secretary Sajid Javid that the UK Border Force has identified “existing technology” to perform the job.

Mr Javid told the BBC on Sunday: “They have shown me quite clearly you can have no hard border on the island of Ireland and you can use existing technology. It is perfectly possible, the only thing missing is a bit of goodwill on the EU side.”

However, this was publicly questioned by the EU’s deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand, who tweeted: “Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years.”

Drawn up in meetings co-ordinated by housing minister Kit Malthouse, the proposal bearing his name recasts the backstop as a “free trade agreement-lite”, with a commitment on all sides there should be no hard border and an extended transition period to December 2021.

It is seen as one of the main reasons the ERG changed its mind and backed an amendment last Tuesday tabled by Sir Graham Brady authorising Mrs May to go back to Brussels and seek a new deal with the backstop stripped out.