A key figure in bringing peace to Northern Ireland has announced plans to take Theresa May to court over the controversial Irish border backstop impasse holding up a Brexit deal.
The prime minister is already facing pressure from Tory Brexiteers to persuade the EU to drop the insurance policy to maintain a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
And now former Northern Irish first minister Lord Trimble has announced he will seek a judicial review of the arrangement, arguing it breaches the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the province.
It creates another headache for May as she seeks to build a majority for her Brexit deal amid an ongoing refusal from the EU to change the backstop.
The PM has insisted that the deal she agreed with Brussels will not pass the Commons unless the EU agrees to drop, time-limit or give the UK the power to quit the protocol.
Lord Trimble’s intervention comes as a group of Tory MPs, including senior hard Brexiteers and more Remain-minded colleagues, met Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to probe ideas on what could replace the backstop.
European Research Group deputy leader Steve Baker, former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson and Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh are the Brexiteers who form part of the ‘alternative arrangements working group’.
Joining them was former education secretary Nicky Morgan and staunch May-ally and ex-cabinet office minister Damian Green.
Baker, the ex-Brexit minister who quit over May’s Chequers accord, and Morgan were involved talks last week over the so-called Malthouse compromise, developed by housing minister Kit Malthouse.
Following the meeting MPs present said the government was taking “very seriously the desire of parliament to identify alternative arrangements” to the backstop, and described the talks at “genuinely constructive. Another agreed that it was a “constructive meeting”.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union added: “The secretary of state met with senior MPs and their advisers to explore in detail the proposals put forward last week in the Malthouse compromise.
“Discussions were detailed and constructive and the first step of a
process to find common ground on the issue of the backstop.
“There will be subsequent meetings tomorrow and coming days.”
Lord Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said he wanted one of the proposals put forward in that plan and championed by Baker to replace the backstop.
This would see the backstop replaced by an interim free trade deal on goods and agri-food.
The Northern Ireland protocol, as the backstop is formally known, is designed to maintain a soft Irish border without checks or controls, if a solution cannot be found through a free trade deal.
But it has proved the most controversial element of the PM’s draft plan, as Tory Brexiteers and the DUP fear it could trap the whole UK in a customs union with the EU, while Northern Ireland is treated differently to the rest of the country.
May is planning to meet business leaders and deliver a speech in Northern Ireland on Tuesday.
Labour MP Owen Smith, a supporter of the Best for Britain anti-Brexit campaign and a former shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said: “Theresa May can set up as many working groups as she wants to buy off recalcitrant backbenchers in her own party, but the fact remains that no one can yet describe how these so called ‘alternative arrangements’ might work on the Irish border.
“It’s hard not to conclude that they don’t have a new plan or a new technical fix to announce, but instead are just winding down the clock to the 11th hour, when she can threaten MPs to back her bad Brexit or risk an even worse no-deal Brexit.
“I believe it’s an appalling dereliction of duty on her part and MPs who know Brexit will be bad for their communities, whatever bungs Mrs May might offer in the short run, should hold their nerve, refuse to support and call instead for a public vote on the deal.”