May Heads to Northern Ireland in Search for a Brexit Answer

Thomas Penny
May Heads to Northern Ireland in Search for a Brexit Answer

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May will start a two-day visit to Northern Ireland on Tuesday to try to bolster support for her divorce deal with the European Union, as she faces fresh pressure to scrap the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border.

The embattled premier has until next week to secure changes to the backstop -- the insurance policy meant to keep the Irish border open in the absence of a broader trade deal -- that will satisfy anti-EU members of her Conservative Party and win her a majority in Parliament. To do so, she is trying to reopen talks with Brussels on the deal she spent 18 months negotiating before Parliament rejected it by a record margin last month.

May, whose minority administration in Westminster is propped up by 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, will pledge during her visit to the province to “find a way” to keep the border open.

“We will find a way to deliver a Brexit that honors our commitments to Northern Ireland, commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland and secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament,” May will say, according to extracts of a speech released by her office.

Ahead of May’s visit, DUP leader Arlene Foster reiterated her opposition to the backstop and said the prime minister must accept the mandate given to her by Parliament to replace it in the deal with Brussels. The DUP would overlook “misgivings” about other aspects of May’s deal and support it, Foster said, if the backstop was “dealt with” -- though she declined to specify how that would need to happen to secure the party’s backing.

“The current backstop is toxic to those of us living in Northern Ireland,” Foster told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday. “It would cause the breakup of the U.K. into the medium and longer term.”

Business Warning

As May struggles to find a plan that can satisfy all sides, the clock is ticking down to exit day on March 29, with companies already feeling the heat.

On Monday, Business Secretary Greg Clark warned Parliament’s failure to agree on Brexit is holding back investment in the U.K., after Nissan Motor Co. abandoned plans to expand production in the U.K.

Clark said while the company’s decision to produce its X-Trail model in Japan instead of Sunderland, northeast England, was “made on broader business grounds,” there’s “damaging uncertainty” about the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Nissan, which has already received 2.6 million pounds ($3.4 million) of a nine-year, 61 million-pound program of government support, will have to reapply for the grants “in the light of the changed investments that they’re making,’’ Clark told the House of Commons.

Read more - Your Guide to Brexit as the March Deadline Looms: QuickTake

Across the industry “there are investments poised to be made if we can settle this question of the terms of our exit and future relationship,” Clark said, before warning that a no-deal divorce from the EU would be “ruinous for our prospects.”

For their part, pro-Brexit Tories expressed anger that May doesn’t appear to have asked the EU to abandon its insistence on the backstop arrangement to keep the Irish frontier open after Brexit.

Why Ireland’s Border Commands Its Own Brexit Backstop: QuickTake

Members of Parliament’s Brexit select committee visited Brussels on Monday for talks with Martin Selmayr, the European Commission’s most senior official.

“I asked Martin Selmayr whether the PM had ever asked for the backstop to be removed,” euroskeptic Tory Andrea Jenkyns said on Twitter. “He stated that he wasn’t aware of her asking for this and had certainly not asked him. He also stated that there has been no request to reopen negotiations by the British Government.”

No Great Hope

John Whittingdale, a Tory former cabinet minister, was similarly pessimistic. “I certainly didn’t hear anything that gave me great hope that the prime minister would come back with a change to the withdrawal agreement,” he told the BBC.

Selmayr, secretary-general of the Commission, denied reports that the bloc might offer legally binding assurances on the Irish border backstop to help May get her deal through the Commons.

“On the EU side, nobody is considering this,” Selmayr wrote on Twitter after meeting with members of the House of Commons Brexit Committee in Brussels. “The EU did well to start its no deal preparations in December 2017.”

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, who said the Nissan decision had more to do with the market for diesel vehicles than Brexit, called on the EU to compromise and said the March 29 deadline for leaving the bloc will not be delayed.

“We want to work with the EU to reach a deal, but if they are not prepared to do that they will have to take responsibility that we are heading towards a no-deal exit,” Grayling said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “I’ve been in every Cabinet meeting, and there’s been no conversation about delaying post-March 29. We are not delaying Article 50.”

(Updates with Foster comment in fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Thomas Penny in London at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at, ;Emma Ross-Thomas at, Robert Jameson, Stuart Biggs

For more articles like this, please visit us at

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.