May hears opposing Brexit views in talks with NI parties

British prime minister continues visit to Northern Ireland canvassing politicians

British prime minister Theresa May heard two emphatic and opposing positions when she met the North's five main parties on Wednesday – that the backstop must stay, and that she must renegotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

Mrs May was meeting the North's five main parties at Stormont as the President of the European Council, whom she is meeting in Brussels on Thursday, was wondering in a tweet "what that special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely".

This prompted the DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson to tweet a response describing Mr Tusk as "arrogant" and as a "devilish trident-wielding euro maniac" who has "contempt for the 17.4 million people who voted to escape the corruption of the EU".

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, after meeting Mrs May, was supportive of Mr Tusk. “I think Donald Tusk is reflecting the real sense of frustration that people now feel,” she said at Stormont.


Public opinion

“It is an absolute outrage that the British government believes that it can jeopardise the future of millions of people right across the European continent but in particular the future of the population of this island,” she said.

“President Tusk was quite right to point that out; I don’t believe his commentary was overly strong at all. I think he is accurately reflecting where public opinion is now,” said the Sinn Fin leader.

Ms McDonald was critical of M´rs May and the British government, particularly especially over the prime minister’s decision to support an amendment endorsed by the House of Commons last week to seek an alternative to the current backstop designed to avoid a hard border.

“The British prime minister has come here with the same old rhetoric, with no plan, no credibility and frankly no honour,” she said.

"We have told her the British strategy of running down the clock and playing a game of chicken with Ireland and Irish interests is profoundly unacceptable and wrong. We have told her that the days of Britain dictating to Ireland and the Irish people are over and will not return," she added.

Ms McDonald told Mrs May the “backstop is the bottom line, the bare minimum requirement to meet Irish interests and protect the Good Friday Agreement” and to avoid a hard border.

She said she also told Mrs May that in the “event of a Tory crash” over Brexit, that she should “begin preparations for a referendum on Irish unity”.

Ms MacDonald repeated that Sinn Féin’s seven MPs would not sit in the House of Commons to participate in critical Brexit votes.


Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster said her meeting with Mrs May provided "another useful opportunity to press for a deal which works for the entire United Kingdom - we want a deal which respects the union and the referendum result.

“The draft withdrawal agreement is flawed because the backstop would undermine the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. The backstop is the main problem,” she said.

“It is welcome that the prime minister is travelling to Brussels to seek changes but she must stand strong and by the commitments she made to the House of Commons,” added Ms Foster.

“We want a deal, one that works for us as well as our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. But we must face reality. There is no ‘agreement’ unless it is able to command the necessary support in parliament,” she said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he told Ms May there were no alternatives to the backstop and that the EU would "not budge" from its current position.

"The bottom line is this: for the people of Northern Ireland, for our peace process, for all of our political progress, we need to remain within the customs union and single market in order to avoid a hard border," he said. "I think that will begin to be understood at all levels in the British parliament because they don't have an alternative. They talk about vague alternatives but there aren't any alternatives," added Mr Eastwood.

Creeping borderism

The SDLP leader said that Northern Ireland must not be put into a different trading relationship than the Republic of Ireland. “That would lead to creeping borderism and we are not prepared to accept that,” he said.

“The bottom line is this: we do not trust this government or any future British government to protect us in a future relationship; that’s why we need the backstop, that’s why we need protecting and that has to happen up front,” he said. Mr Eastwood added that there were “no magical technological solutions” to the Brexit problem.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann told Mrs May that if the UK exits the European Union on March 29th as scheduled, she should bring back direct rule from Westminster on March 30th.

Mr Swann also complained of Irish Government "intransigence" in the Brexit negotiations.

Mr Swann said they also discussed how to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly but that the main focus was on Brexit and the UUP delegation had to “drag her to a place where we actually started talking about how to get these institutions back up and running”.

He said it was not possible to have meaningful discussions on Brexit without working institutions at Stormont. “If Northern Ireland leaves the European Union with no deal there is only one option for us in Northern Ireland and that is to move directly and straight to direct rule because come the 30th of March Northern Ireland needs political guidance and leadership,” said Mr Swann.

All-weather backstop

The UUP leader told Mrs May that the common travel area to allow people move freely between Britain and Ireland could be extended to include good.

The Alliance leader Naomi Long after meeting Mrs May said a time-limited backstop could not work and what was required was an "all-weather permanent backstop" to avoid a hard border.

Ms Long said that while there may not be cross-party support for a backstop there was certainly cross-community support for such an arrangement and this was demonstrated by how business, farming and other sectors in Northern Ireland supported the backstop.

“It is time to reach out to pragmatists and get a pragmatic way forward,” said Ms Long. She added,

"This is not about political philosophy, this is about people who live in Donegal and work in Derry, this is about people who live in Newry and work in Dundalk. This is about people being able to do their jobs, it's about workforce planning in our health service, in our schools, it's about all of those things. It's not about philosophical debates in parliament."

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times