May meets Northern Ireland politicians over Brexit

Theresa May arrives in Stormont

Theresa May is holding talks on Brexit with Northern Ireland’s five main political parties at Stormont.

The PM is on a two-day visit to try to reassure people she can secure a Brexit deal that avoids the return of customs checkpoints on the Irish border.

On Tuesday, she told business leaders she wanted changes to the controversial backstop plan to prevent this but indicated she did not seek to scrap it.

Meanwhile, Irish PM Leo Varadkar will meet EU leaders in Brussels.

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The talks come before Mrs May is due to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday in an effort to secure changes to her Brexit deal.

The EU has maintained it will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop.

Mrs May has been spending Wednesday morning meeting the political parties.

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Brexit: Will May make ‘good enough’ progress?

Analysis by Laura Kuenssberg, BBC News Political Editor

Today Theresa May is in Northern Ireland meeting the different political parties – including the DUP, whose votes she needs in Parliament, who are totally opposed to the current version of the controversial backstop as well as Sinn Féin who are just as adamant that it must remain.

Then tomorrow Mrs May will be in Brussels, asking, again, for the EU to amend the policy seeking either a time limit, or a legal upgrade to the promise that both sides will only use it if they really, really, really have to, and they don’t expect it to last for ever.

In short, today’s a chance for the PM to test out what she’ll ask for, tomorrow, an opportunity to sell it as hard as she can in Brussels.

Remember she has asked for these changes before and been turned down.

And she’s heard before from both sides in Northern Ireland how dug in their positions are.

So can she do anything other than take one more turn around the same carousel while the clock ticks down?

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Who has the PM been meeting on Wednesday?

Mrs May is holding bilateral meetings on Brexit and Northern Ireland’s political deadlock with Stormont’s five biggest political parties:

  • The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the Conservative Party’s confidence-and-supply partner at Westminster
  • Sinn Féin
  • SDLP
  • Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
  • Alliance Party

There has been no functioning devolved government since January 2017, after a row between the DUP and Sinn Féin over a flawed green energy scheme collapsed the power-sharing executive.

It sparked a snap election but, since then, various talks processes have collapsed and the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley had to take control of financial matters and pass Stormont’s budget bills through Westminster.

For almost 10 years before that, the DUP and Sinn Féin worked together in government under a system of mandatory coalition, where unionist and nationalist parties shared power.

What did the parties say after the meeting?

Ulster Unionist Party:

Leader Robin Swann said his party would not accept a time-limited backstop, something the PM suggested when his party met her.

He added that the UUP had to “drag” the PM to a place where they could raise the restoration of Stormont, and that she wanted to focus on Brexit.

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Mr Swann said his party told her they want direct rule implemented in NI if there is a no deal Brexit.

Alliance Party:

Leader Naomi Long said the time for “assurances” on Brexit from the British government was over, describing her party’s talks with Mrs May as “constructive but very direct”.

Ms Long reiterated the party had heard nothing new from Mrs May and that it still backed the Brexit deal that included the backstop.

The backstop is a commitment to avoid physical barriers or checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, if no UK-EU trade deal is agreed before the Brexit transition period ends.

Many people fear the return of customs checks would put the peace process at risk.

In Tuesday’s speech in Belfast, Mrs May said: “There is no suggestion that we are not going to ensure in the future there is provision for this insurance policy… the backstop.”

However, she indicated she would seek changes to address concerns raised by MPs about its “potential indefinite nature” when they overwhelmingly rejected her Brexit deal.

Last week, MPs voted for an amendment tabled by Conservative grandee Sir Graham Brady – and backed by the PM – which “requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.

Many fear the “temporary single customs territory” created under the backstop plan would keep Britain tied to EU rules in the long term.

Downing Street has insisted the government is still considering alternatives.

What could the UK offer as possible backstop ‘alternatives’?

On Wednesday, the Alternative Arrangements Working Group, comprised of Leave and Remain MPs, will conclude three days of talks aimed at finding other Brexit options that would avoid a hard border.

MPs have been looking at “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, which Mrs May has said she will discuss with EU leaders. They include:

  • a “trusted trader” scheme to avoid physical checks on goods flowing through the border
  • “mutual recognition” of rules with the EU
  • “technological” solutions

The UK is due to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March, when the two-year limit on withdrawal negotiations enforced by the Article 50 process expires.

If MPs approve a deal with Brussels, the parties will then have until the end of 2020 to negotiate a future trade deal. If that is not in place by the end of this transition period, the backstop kicks in.

Without a deal, however, there would be no backstop and no transition period.

The prime minister has said she is “determined” to deliver Brexit on time, but a number of cabinet ministers have indicated they would be willing to agree to a short extension to finalise legislation for Brexit.

Varadkar in Brussels

Leo VaradkarImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar will hold discussions with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.

He is also meeting EU Council President Donald Tusk and the EU Parliament’s Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt during his visit.

The pair will talk about the Republic of Ireland’s preparations for a no-deal outcome.

Mrs May is due to travel to Brussels on Thursday, for her first face-to-face talks in Brussels since the Withdrawal Agreement reached last November was rejected by MPs in January.