Theresa May has almost no room for manoeuvre but these tweaks could help squeak her Withdrawal Agreement over the lineby David Shiels / February 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
The prime minister had a difficult task on her visit to Northern Ireland on Tuesday. On her last visit in November, she hailed the Withdrawal Agreement as a good deal for Northern Ireland and defended the controversial “backstop” as an essential safeguard in ensuring no return to a hard border with the Republic. This time she had to acknowledge that the Withdrawal Agreement was unacceptable to the British parliament, with the backstop identified as the main problem.
She must now try to find changes that make it acceptable to the British parliament, reassuring MPs that it is not a trap for the UK, while also upholding her commitment to a solution that works for the whole community in Northern Ireland. Her situation is complicated by the apparent hardening of the EU’s stance in the last two weeks, as the key negotiators insist the backstop is the only show in town. As the clock ticks down, and the possibility of no-deal looms, the question for May is whether she can find a proposal that is acceptable to all these different groups.
So far, the EU has been reluctant to budge. The other heads of government—and especially the Irish government—see the present political instability at Westminster as proof that the backstop is needed, further evidence that Brexit Britain can’t be trusted unless there is an insurance policy written into law. May’s decision to back Graham Brady’s amendment last week—the one which sought “alternative arrangements” to the backstop—went down particularly badly in Dublin. Back in London, the prime minister has been criticised for prioritising a compromise with her own backbenchers and the DUP rather than reaching out to secure cross-party support for her deal.
The truth is the concerns of the DUP were always going to be a factor in these negotiations, especially to a prime minister who sees herself as a Unionist. As May acknowledged in her Belfast speech, the backstop is opposed by the two Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, including the Ulster Unionist Party. Many Conservative MPs also look to the Unionist parties for guidance on this issue. For the time being, the DUP are walking in step with the Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group.
There are, however, a number of things which might appeal directly to the…