As Brexit debate begins, PM fails to win over Northern Irish kingmakers

Reuters , Wednesday 9 Jan 2019

Theresa May
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (Photo: Reuters)

British Prime Minister Theresa May failed on Wednesday to persuade the Northern Irish party that props up her government to back her Brexit deal, just hours before members of parliament were due to resume debate on the divorce agreement.

May has refused to back down over her deal which envisages close trading ties with the European Union after leaving in March, pressing ahead with a vote in parliament on Jan. 15 that she looks set to lose, throwing Brexit into deeper uncertainty.

May postponed a vote on the deal last month, admitting it would be defeated, instead promising to seek “legal and political assurances” from the EU to ease concerns, particularly over a plan to keep an open border on the island of Ireland.

But the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said it could still not support the so-called backstop arrangements, increasing the likelihood of parliament rejecting the deal and opening the way for a range of different outcomes: from a disorderly exit to another referendum on EU membership.

With the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit rising, the EU is looking at how Brexit might be postponed and pro-EU campaigners are testing ways Britain could stage another referendum after voters narrowly backed leaving in 2016.

May again on Wednesday called on MPs to vote for her deal, suggesting she was confident of getting further assurances from the EU to ease their concerns and offering Northern Ireland more control over the backstop arrangement to prevent the return to a hard border with EU member Ireland.

“I’ve been in contact with European leaders ... about MPs’ (members of parliaments’) concerns. These discussions have shown that further clarification over the backstop is possible and those talks will continue over the next few days,” May said.

But Northern Irish politicians were swift to dismiss her proposals to offer Northern Ireland a “strong voice and role in any decision to bring the backstop into effect”.

Sammy Wilson, the Brexit spokesman for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, said: “The only thing which could swing the DUP round is if the backstop as it applies to the United Kingdom as a whole or to Northern Ireland specifically were removed from this agreement.”

Wilson, one of 10 DUP MPs propping up May’s minority government, cast as “window dressing” her proposals to give the Northern Irish assembly the power to vote against new EU rules if the border backstop comes into force after Brexit.

Her deal, he said, was “ruinous”.


Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 at 2300 GMT.

May told MPs that parliament had a choice: backing her deal or risk Britain leaving the bloc without a deal, a scenario many businesses say would disrupt supply chains and hinder investment in the world’s fifth largest economy.

May’s de-facto deputy said it was a delusion to think the government would be able to negotiate a new divorce deal if parliament voted down her deal.

“I don’t think the British public are served by fantasies about magical, alternative deals that are somehow going to spring out of a cupboard in Brussels,” Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said in an interview with BBC radio.

The government needs 318 votes to get a deal through the 650-seat House of Commons, as seven members of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein do not sit, four speakers and deputy speakers do not vote and the four tellers are not counted.

May’s precarious position in parliament was highlighted on Tuesday when MPs who oppose leaving without a deal won a vote creating a new obstacle to a no-deal Brexit.

The 303 to 296 defeat means the government needs explicit parliamentary approval to leave the EU without a deal before it can use certain powers relating to taxation law. May’s office had earlier played down the impact of defeat.

Some investors and major banks believe May’s deal will be defeated on Tuesday but that eventually it will be approved.

The ultimate Brexit outcome will shape Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy, have far-reaching consequences for the unity of the United Kingdom and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centres.

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