The British Prime Minister has begun a round of meetings with Northern Ireland’s political leaders as she strives for a breakthrough on the Irish backstop impasse.
On the final day of a two-day visit to Belfast, Theresa May has scheduled meetings with all five of the main parties at Stormont House.
On Tuesday, Mrs May had conversations with business and community leaders.
As well as the Brexit deadlock, the talks at Stormont will also focus on the ongoing powersharing crisis which has left Northern Ireland without a properly functioning devolved government for more than two years.
The region has been in a political limbo land since January 2017, with senior civil servants running public services amid a reluctance by the Government to introduce direct rule.
On his way into Stormont House on Wednesday morning, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said a no-deal Brexit should see Mrs May immediately move to impose Westminster rule.
“She has to put direct rule in place come March 30 because Northern Ireland needs political leadership and it needs political direction,” he said.”
“So by March 29, if we are coming out with no deal with no Executive, we need direct rule for Northern Ireland, the manufacturing industry needs direction, our agrifood industry needs direction, we need some sort of political leadership in Northern Ireland.”
Mrs May has suggested she is seeking “changes” to the controversial backstop in her Brexit deal, rather than its total removal from the Withdrawal Agreement.
By Vivienne Clarke
The DUP’s Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson MP is adamant that his party’s message to British Prime Minister Theresa May is that the current withdrawal agreement is not acceptable.
While he will not be at the meeting in Belfast today, as he is in London, he said that Arlene Foster will tell Mrs May that there is an alternative which is the removal of the backstop and to instead put in place an agreement about trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“We’re never going to be sure what this Prime Minister is going to do,” he told Newstalk Breakfast.
He said that the DUP will be “keeping an eye” on what Mrs May says in Brussels and will be hoping to talk to her today about what she plans to say in Brussels.
But he pointed out that whatever is decided in Brussels “she will still have to bring it back to Westminster.” He warned that she would “suffer the same fate” as before if she “comes back with a paper agreement.”
Mr Wilson said that the signs from both Brussels and Dublin were that paperless checks and documentation were a solution to avoid a hard border. He said that EU negotiators that already admitted it was possible to check trade through technology.
“This already happens in other places.”
He said that the technology company Fujitsu was in talks with UK officials to find ways for trade to be monitored, but that cross border trade already happens seamlessly “every day” between Northern Ireland and the Republic and lorries are not stopped.
The British Prime Minister will meet the main Northern Irish parties later as she steps up her bid for a breakthrough on the backstop.
Theresa May has already had conversations with business and community leaders during her two-day trip to Belfast.
She is expected to meet the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin among others on Wednesday.
The premier has suggested that she is seeking “changes” to the controversial backstop in her Brexit deal, rather than its total removal from the UK’s EU Withdrawal Agreement.
In a speech in Belfast, the Prime Minister restated her “unshakeable” commitment to avoiding a hard border in Ireland after Brexit, pledging: “The UK Government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen.”
But asked how she could convince the people of Northern Ireland to accept a Brexit deal which was stripped of the backstop, Mrs May said: “I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future.
“What Parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop.”
It was in that light that she was working with MPs, the Irish government and the EU to find a way to meet the commitment to take Britain out of the EU on March 29 with a deal which avoided a hard Irish border, she said.
The Irish Government accused the Prime Minister of harbouring unrealistic expectations over the backstop.
The mechanism has polarised nationalists and unionists.
Many unionists believe the “insurance policy” to preserve a frictionless frontier on the island of Ireland could threaten the integrity of the UK if Northern Ireland’s customs regulations varied from Great Britain after Brexit.
Nationalists and many business leaders fear major disruption to trade and a hard border threatening peace process gains if no deal is struck and the backstop is not triggered.
Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will travel to Brussels for meetings with European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Mrs May is due to visit the Belgian capital on Thursday, where she will hold a series of talks with key figures including Mr Tusk, Mr Juncker, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani and the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt.
It will be the Prime Minister’s first chance to hold first face-to-face talks in Brussels since the Withdrawal Agreement reached last November was rejected by the House of Commons.
And it comes a week after MPs voted for an amendment tabled by Conservative grandee Sir Graham Brady and backed by the Prime Minister which “requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.
Mrs May will seek to secure changes which can persuade MPs to support her deal in a series of votes expected on February 14.
In Westminster, the working group bringing together senior Eurosceptic and former Remain-supporting Tories will continue efforts to agree alternatives to the backstop along the lines of the Malthouse Compromise.
Talks involving Conservatives including Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson along with former Remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green will continue in Whitehall, chaired by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
The first meeting on Monday was described as “detailed and constructive” by the Brexit department.- Press Association