* Northern Ireland is key Brexit stumbling bloc
* May calls for new deal in Belfast speech
* Says current EU plan ‘unworkable’
By Ian Graham
BELFAST, July 20 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday was set to call on the European Union to strike a new deal to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland and demand Brussels quickly respond to her ‘white paper’ plan to avoid a damaging no-deal Brexit.
In a speech due to be delivered in Belfast on Friday morning, May will accept the need to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic once Britain leaves the bloc, but will dismiss the EU’s current plan as “unworkable,” according to extracts released by her office.
Instead, May said the EU must engage with her Brexit ‘white paper’ policy document released earlier this month, which proposes negotiating the closest possible commercial links for goods trade to protect businesses and to fulfil a commitment to avoid having infrastructure on the border.
It is “now for the EU to respond. Not simply to fall back onto previous positions which have already been proven unworkable. But to evolve their position in kind,” May is to tell a crowd at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, according to the text.
Still reeling after her Brexit plan triggered the resignation of senior members of her cabinet, May flew to Northern Ireland on Thursday for a two-day visit to see up close the troubled British region’s frontier with EU-member Ireland. The border has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the negotiations.
The 500-kilometre (300 mile) border has been largely invisible since army checkpoints were taken down after a 1998 peace deal ended three decades of violence between the region’s pro-British majority and an Irish nationalist minority. Over 3,600 died.
May has refused to accept a “backstop” solution proposed by the European Union in which Northern Ireland would remain closely aligned with the European Union’s single market and customs union on the grounds that it would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country’ customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept,” May is to tell a crowd at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, according to the text.
The Irish government, which has said it has concerns about May’s white paper, on Friday said a backstop was essential, but could be renegotiated.
“The only thing that could replace this current form of a backstop is, No. 1 something which is better; No. 2 something which is agreed and No. 3 something that would be legally operable,” Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told RTE radio.
The EU has warned business to get ready for Britain crashing out of the bloc without agreed terms, although officials and diplomats still think some kind of deal is more likely than not, if only because the cost for both sides would be so high.
While May is trying to convince Brussels to make concessions on Northern Ireland, she is also trying to shore up support in her Conservative Party after her white paper proposals sparked cabinet level resignations last week.
After quitting, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson singled out her treatment of the border as the biggest mistake of her negotiations with the EU for a smooth exit from the bloc next year.
Johnson on Wednesday told parliament that May had unnecessarily let the “readily soluble” border issue “become so politically charged as to dominate the debate” pushing May towards a close alignment with the EU he described as a “miserable, permanent limbo”. (Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Toby Chopra)