Theresa May says there'll be no return to 'borders of the past' in post-Brexit Northern Ireland


Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to find a "practical solution" to managing the Irish border following Brexit, insisting nobody wanted a return to barriers and checkpoints of the past.

May said she recognised the particular circumstance presented by Northern Ireland's land border with the Republic of Ireland - an EU member state - after she held talks with the region's political leaders at Stormont Castle, Belfast.

"Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past," she said. "What we do want to do is to find a way through this that is going to work and deliver a practical solution for everybody - as part of the work that we are doing to ensure that we make a success of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union - and that we come out of this with a deal which is in the best interests of the whole of the United Kingdom."

First Minister Arlene Foster speaks to the media
(Liam McBurney/PA)

The Prime Minister heard contrasting views on the way forward post-referendum from Brexit-backing First Minister Arlene Foster and Remain-supporting Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as they discussed the fall-out in a region where the majority (56%) voted for the UK to stay in the EU.

Democratic Unionist Foster said she welcomed May's pledge to fully consult with the Stormont Executive on the negotiations with the EU, but Sinn Fein's McGuinness said he told her Brexit brought "no good news whatsoever" and the outcome of the vote in Northern Ireland had to be respected.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness speaks to the media
(Liam McBurney/PA)

Campaigning for a Remain vote on a visit to Northern Ireland before June's historic vote, May said it would be inconceivable, in the event of a decision to Leave, that there would not be changes to the current arrangements that allow free movement of goods, trade and services across the border.

A month on, on her first engagement in the region as Prime Minister, she was asked whether a hardening of the border was now inevitable.

May noted that the Common Travel Area (CTA) agreement between the UK and Irish Republic, which enables people to move unrestricted across the island, pre-dated the creation of the EU.

While the accord dates back to the 1920s, it has never been in operation when one country was inside the EU and one was not - as both the UK and Ireland joined the European Community at the same time in early 1970s.

the politicians sit round a table
(Charles McQuillan/PA)

May characterised her discussions with Foster and McGuinness as "very constructive ... positive". She held a joint meeting with both leaders before breaking off for one-to one talks with each individually.

But following the PM's departure from Stormont Castle, the divisions within the powersharing administration on the matter were laid bare as Foster and McGuinness gave contrasting assessments of the meetings.

Foster said: "I am delighted that she is here in Northern Ireland recognising the importance of Northern Ireland as a strategic part of the United Kingdom and we look forward to feeding in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland into the process that has now begun."

McGuinness said: "There is absolutely no good news whatsoever about Brexit. There are no good opportunities flowing from Brexit and I made it clear to the British Prime Minister that the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the North, who see their future in Europe, who voted to remain in Europe, should be respected."