Prime Minister Theresa May’s Speech in Belfast
5 February 2019
Well, good afternoon, everybody.
And I’m pleased to be back in Belfast today, with under 8 weeks to go until the UK leaves the EU, I recognise that this is a crucial time for Northern Ireland. And ensuring that the unique needs of this part of the UK are met has been one of my chief priorities ever since I became Prime Minister.
Any border that weaves its way through farms and villages, bisects hundreds of roads and lanes, and which is crossed and re-crossed by thousands of people every day would pose a logistical challenge in the context of Brexit.
But when you add to those geographical factors, Northern Ireland’s complex history, the different traditions and identities that make up its community, and the long path to peace that the people of Northern Ireland have walked over the last forty years – the challenge is even greater.
Over the last two and half years, we have come a long way towards a solution that works for Northern Ireland and Ireland.
We have agreed mutual protections for citizens’ rights, the maintenance of our common travel area, and set a framework for our future relationship that ensures tariff and quota-free trade and protects our close co-operation on security and law enforcement.
But the UK Parliament rejected the Withdrawal Agreement because of their concerns about the backstop – the legal protocol to prevent no hard border in the event our future relationship is not in place at the end of the implementation period.
Now I know that many people in Northern Ireland, and indeed across this island, are worried about what Parliament’s rejection of the withdrawal deal means for them.
So I am here today to affirm my commitment, and that of the United Kingdom Government, to all of the people of Northern Ireland, of every background and tradition.
To affirm my commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, to its successors the St Andrew’s Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement, and to the principles they enshrine – which is absolute.
And to affirm my commitment to delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – which is unshakable.
I was 12 when the Troubles began and 41 when the Belfast Agreement was reached; for all my adult life, Northern Ireland has been a central political issue.
The progress of the last few decades – from the Troubles to ceasefire; from ceasefire to political agreement; and from agreement to active participation by unionists and nationalists in institutions that enjoy cross-community support – has been a massive achievement and a landmark in the history of these islands.
From the moment I became Prime Minister of the UK, I knew that one of my most profound responsibilities was to serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland by doing all I could to protect and sustain that progress.
Successive UK and Irish Governments have played their parts, often working together in close co-operation.
But it has been the political parties in Northern Ireland – the UUP and the SDLP, the DUP, Sinn Fein, and the Alliance – it has been civil society groups like WAVE and Healing Through Remembering – and above all, it has been the people of Northern Ireland who have achieved by far the most.
Violence has not been eliminated. But it has been reduced to levels that would once have seemed impossible to imagine.
Divisions remain entrenched in some communities. But many people, including those from the younger generations, are more and more interested in putting aside those divisions to build a shared future.
Thanks to greater political stability, Northern Ireland is now a leading destination for inward investment, with over 900 international businesses investing in its economic success.
Employment is at a near-record high and unemployment at a near-record low.
And that transformation is reflected in the image that Northern Ireland projects to the rest of the world today.
It is no longer one of violence, but of dynamism and success.
And the decisive moment in that transformation was the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Its success was in allowing people of different traditions to feel that those traditions and their identities were respected, and that they could work together to build a successful future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
It enshrined the principle that it is the ‘birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.’
And it enshrined the consent principle: that it will always and only be for the people of Northern Ireland to decide what their constitutional future should be – and that the UK Government is solemnly committed to supporting and implementing their democratic wishes.
These principles are the bedrock of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
And they will forever be honoured by the United Kingdom Government.
A fundamental belief in the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is part of my political heritage as a Conservative and Unionist – and that will never change.
But the Unionism I believe in is one that respects absolutely the central importance of Irish identity to those people in Northern Ireland who claim it.
And the United Kingdom I stand for is an open and tolerant union of nations and people.
A country where every religion, every peaceful and democratic creed, has a place and every man and woman is equal before the law, treated with respect and has the opportunity to get on and succeed.
Indeed, that Union can only ever be secure and prosper if it is built on that respect and acceptance of difference and diversity.
Because the Belfast Agreement is not just the bedrock of stability here in Northern Ireland, its principles are fundamental to the security and success of the whole United Kingdom.
Our absolute commitment to those principles has informed and directed my approach to Brexit – from my first speeches as Prime Minister to my first meetings with the Taoiseach.
And in December 2017, in the Joint Report we agreed with the EU, we committed to protect the 1998 agreement ‘in all its parts…and to the totality of the relationships set out in it.’
… ‘to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls’
…and ‘to preserving the integrity of the UK internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it.’
These were commitments made in good faith.
Our preferred approach has always been to deliver them through the Future Relationship.
But I accepted the need for an insurance policy or bridging arrangement to guarantee no hard border if the Future Relationship was not in place in time.