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May's Brexit plans for Northern Ireland: What you need to know

Theresa May in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 20, 2018.
Theresa May in Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 20, 2018. Copyright Charles McQuillan/Pool via Reuters
Copyright Charles McQuillan/Pool via Reuters
By Alice Tidey
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Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed as “unworkable” the EU’s plans on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and urged the bloc to “evolve” their position and back her government’s proposals.


Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday dismissed as “unworkable” the EU’s plans on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and urged the bloc to “evolve” their position and back her government’s proposals.

The issue over how best to avoid the creation of a hard border between the island’s two parts has been one of the thorniest for Brexit negotiators.

Northern Ireland is part of the UK, while the Republic is a EU member state.

The Prime Minister delivered the speech Friday during a two-day visit to Northern Ireland. Here are the main takeaways.

What's new?

The EU’s plans to retain frictionless trade and travel between the island’s two parts include keeping Northern Ireland closely aligned with the bloc’s customs union, single market and VAT system.

May rejected the idea, arguing it would create a border down the Irish Sea.

“The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country’ customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept,” May said.

She argued that such a solution would mean Northern Ireland would be represented in trade negotiations by the EU and “not its own government.”

What's May saying now?

The Prime Minister said her government’s proposal — laid out in the White Paper released after a meeting of her Cabinet at Chequers — is a “credible third option.”

The proposal, she argued, delivers on the referendum result, is good for the UK economy and works for the EU “as well as us.”

The plan involves the whole of the UK leaving the customs union and single market, as well as the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. That would allow the UK to end free movement, stop annual payments to the EU and leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

She also emphasised it will enable the UK to “have regulatory freedom over our services sector, which accounts for 80% of the UK economy.”

To avoid a hard border in Ireland, May instead proposed a “free trade area in goods and agricultural products between the UK and the EU.”

She sought to dispel criticism from Brexiteers by arguing that rules on goods “have been relatively stable for 30 years”, that most standards are set by international bodies “which we will remain a member of after we leave the EU” and that UK businesses trading with the single market “will continue to meet these rules anyway.”

“This is the right deal for the United Kingdom and I believe it is the basis for a new deep and strong relationship with the EU,” May said.


What's Republic of Ireland's position?

Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, visited Brussels on Friday for a meeting with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Ahead of the visit, he posted on Twitter that “if the UK Govt (government) don’t support current EU wording on Backstop in draft Withdrawal Agreement, then obligation is on them to propose a viable and legally operable alternative wording that delivers same result: no border infrastructure.”

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) said Wednesday that the Republic of Ireland was stepping up its plans for a no-deal Brexit and that it was looking to hire 1,000 extra customs agents over the next year.

He also warned that he could close Irish airspace to UK planes if Theresa May’s government were to restrict access to Irish fishermen if the UK left the Common Fisheries Policy.


Where do May's own MPs stand on this?

The Prime Minister’s Chequers White Paper was criticised by Brexiteers in her own party, who bemoaned its strategy for a soft Brexit. It led to the resignation of several key members of her Cabinet including then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis.

In her speech, May fired several shots at Brexiteers,, warning Eurosceptics that the UK cannot “wash our hands” of the Irish border issue by leaving it to the EU to sort.

She also appeared to respond to Johnson who reiterated in his resignation speech earlier this week that “technical solutions to make customs and regulatory checks remotely” existed.

May said that “no technology solution to address these issues has been designed yet, or implemented anywhere in the world, let alone in such a unique and highly sensitive context as the Northern Ireland border.”

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