May seeks bilateral deal on Irish border to break Brexit impasse

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and husband Philip May arrive at church near High Wycombe, Britain, 20 January 2019. [Will Oliver/EPA/EFE]

British Prime Minister Theresa May is considering solving a Brexit deadlock by amending a 1998 agreement that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland after ditching attempts to negotiate a cross-party deal, the Daily Telegraph reported late on Sunday (20 January).

Prime Minister Theresa May returns to parliament on Monday to make a statement on how she will proceed with Britain’s departure from the European Union after her deal was defeated by lawmakers last week.

May’s plan to amend the 1998 Good Friday Agreement would see the UK and Ireland agree a separate set of principles or add text to “support or reference” the 1998 peace deal setting out how both sides would guarantee an open border after Brexit, the newspaper reported.

May suffered a heavy defeat in parliament on Tuesday when lawmakers and members of other parties rejected her deal for Britain’s with the European Union by an overwhelming majority. Many object to a backstop arrangement that the European Union insists on as a guarantee to avoid a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

May to face confidence vote after Brexit deal suffers crushing defeat

Theresa May will face a no confidence vote after MPs rejected her Brexit agreement by a crushing 230 majority on Tuesday night (15 January).

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement that largely ended years of violence between Irish republicans and pro-British unionists, border posts were removed and the province was given a power-sharing structure where both communities were represented.

According to The Daily Telegraph, senior EU sources have called May’s new plan a non-starter while British government sources are “skeptical” that it would work, as the plan is likely to prove controversial and would require the consent of all the parties involved in Northern Ireland.

Neale Richmond, a member of Ireland’s governing Fine Gael party and chairman of the upper house of parliament’s Brexit committee, said the Good Friday Agreement cannot be renegotiated lightly.

“The #GFA is an international peace treaty, lodged with the @UN – it also has a mandate of 94% in Ireland and 71% in Northern Ireland. Not something that can be renegotiated lightly or easily to meet #Brexit whims”, he tweeted.

Meanwhile, The Sunday Times reported that plans to seek a bilateral treaty with the Irish government as a way to remove the contentious backstop arrangement.

Sky News reported that May is expected to set out plans to try and remove the Irish backstop, in an effort to win around the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.

Germany sceptical

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Sunday it was unclear how any talks between Britain and Ireland on resolving the question of the Irish backstop could help the European Union’s deal with London on Brexit.

Asked by ZDF television about media reports on possible plans by May to negotiate a bilateral deal with the Irish government, Maas said it was unclear how it would work.

“We have to negotiate and also agree a withdrawal agreement with Britain. It is a bit of a mystery to me what the British government wants to negotiate with Dublin or what sort of an additional agreement it should be,” he told German television.

“It won’t have any effect on what was agreed with the (European) Commission.”

Maas also said it would be “very difficult” to renegotiate Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU.

“All 27 members must agree. In the last few days there have been relatively clear statements that there are many who are not ready to and there are some that are open to it. We have to wait to see what the Britons suggest,” he said.

In an interview with Monday’s edition of Die Welt daily, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a pro-European, said it was pointless for the EU to make concessions to Britain.

“Even if the EU moves away from the backstop and gives up the position of the Irish government, which I don’t think will happen, even that wouldn’t save the deal,” he said.

Britain’s only options are a second Brexit referendum or forging a close economic relationship with the European Union, the main opposition Labour Party said on Sunday.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, told the BBC he was open to extending Article 50 if that meant Britain avoided leaving the EU without a deal.

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