x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Theresa May in desperate fight to rescue crumbling Brexit deal after Ireland row

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) issued an uncompromising reiteration of its refusal to accept any “divergence” from rules on the British mainland

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May hopes to cement a deal within the next few weeks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May hopes to cement a deal within the next few weeks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Prime Minister Theresa May may return to Brussels as early as tomorrow to try to save a Brexit deal, according to Number 10.

She will seek to open the way for talks on future trade after Britain leaves the EU that involves accepting “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland to avoid a hard border.

Mrs May and other British officials will speak to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) today after a tentative deal on Brexit with the European Union over the border with Ireland was dashed at the last minute yesterday.

A tentative deal with Dublin to keep EU rules in Northern Ireland angered her allies in Belfast.

The British leader had sat down to lunch with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hoping that a last-minute offer to the Irish government of “regulatory alignment” on both sides of a new UK-EU land border would remove a last obstacle to the EU open talks next week on future trade.

Yet as Mrs May and Mr Juncker spoke in Brussels and the pound rose on prospects of free trade and perhaps a very “soft Brexit”, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) issued an uncompromising reiteration of its refusal to accept any “divergence” from rules on the British mainland.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar cancelled a news conference and the pound fell back, losing a cent against the dollar, as Mrs May and Mr Juncker emerged to say there was still not “sufficient progress” on divorce terms to move ahead.

Mrs May agreed with Mr Juncker that a deal could be reached in a few days before the EU summit on December 14-15, but that promise did little to stem recriminations at home, where Brexit campaigners want Britain to become what one called a “free agent” and set its own rules.

Mr Varadkar shared the view of some officials in Brussels that it was an opportunity missed.

“I‘m surprised and disappointed that the U.K. government appears not to be in a position to conclude what was agreed earlier today,” he told a news conference in Dublin.

“I accept that the British prime minister has asked for more time and I know that she faces many challenges and I acknowledge that she is negotiating in good faith but my position and that of the Irish government is unequivocal.”

The Irish border has emerged as a defining issue for Brexit, one of the thorniest of three main issues, which include how much Britain should pay to leave and protections for expatriate citizens rights, to be settled before moving talks forward.

All sides say they want to avoid a return to a hard border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, which might upset the peace established after decades of violence.

But they have found it difficult to find the right wording on guaranteeing the unguarded border as set out in the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that will suit all sides.

Dependent on the support of lawmakers in the DUP for a majority in parliament, Mrs May must keep them on board and has repeated that she wants to maintain the economic integrity of the United Kingdom in any Brexit deal.

By suggesting May would settle for continued regulatory alignment if there was no alternative way, some in the DUP and in her own party fear Northern Ireland could get a kind of special status that could draw it away from the mainland.

The leaders of Scotland and Wales, and the mayor of London, also announced that they would want to follow suit if special terms were agreed for Northern Ireland.