Irish ambassador accuses Theresa May of ‘backsliding’ on border backstop

Ireland has accused Theresa May of “backsliding” on Britain’s firm commitment to sign up to a backstop promise for the Irish border that would guarantee the open border remains after Brexit in the event of no deal.

In an unusually outspoken speech, Adrian O’Neill, the Irish ambassador to the UK, told an audience of British civil servants and EU embassy officials he was alarmed that some Brexiter MPs think the backstop was not even necessary.

That there was still no deal on the Irish border, nine months after the prime minister had signed up to the backstop option, was “both disappointing and concerning”, O’Neill said.

He said that it was unlikely there could be a deal in the next 48 hours, and the “most benign” outcome of the European council was that the prime minister would make a speech that bettered the EU27’s understanding of her position “and that would lead to renewed impetus in negotiations”.

“Time is not on our side, and with each passing day we grow increasingly concerned that decisive progress on Northern Ireland has not made,” he said.

“It is even more concerning that we hear comments in some quarters here that the backstop is unnecessary,” O’Neill added. A no-deal hard border he said, had the capacity to “disturb the delicate and complex balance of the Good Friday agreement and disrupt the fragile peace”.

The backstop, he said, was a “crucial safety net” for the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland.

“We should be in no doubt that the prospect of Brexit, especially a hard Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit, is causing genuine anxiety in Northern Ireland,” said O’Neill.

He pointed out that Theresa May had committed to a backstop back in December with no mention of a time limit to it, an idea that the Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, has said is a “deal-breaker”.

Sources within the EU express frustration that the time-limit idea had already been dismissed after it was put forward in June as part of Theresa May’s pre-Chequers customs proposals.

The time limit was inserted under pressure from hard Brexiters who threatened to resign if there was an open-ended backstop, but back-channel communications from Downing Street to EU officials suggested this was not something May was committed to.