The 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 the Prime Minister 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.
In a speech in Belfast on Tuesday, 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 is in that light that she is 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 avoids a hard Irish border, she said.
Supporters of the so-called Malthouse Compromise – which has brought MPs from the Remain and Brexit wings of the Conservative Party together behind a plan requiring the backstop to be ditched – denied the PM’s comments had killed off their initiative.
As they prepared to meet for a third day in the Cabinet Office, MPs in the group insisted they remain hopeful she will give serious consideration to the blueprint which they intend to complete by the end of Wednesday.
With around a dozen civil servants taking part in daily meetings lasting two hours, it is “clear that a lot of Government time and effort and brainpower is being invested in this”, they said.
The compromise offers the EU a choice between a Plan A, involving the existing Agreement with an alternative to the backstop and a transition period stretching to December 2021, or a Plan B under which the UK leaves without a deal on March 29 but remains in the single market and customs area to the end of 2021 while arrangements are made for final departure.
MPs in the group said their compromise has a good chance of securing a majority in the Commons, making it a more serious proposition for EU leaders than proposals for amendments to the backstop which would be rejected by a wide margin.
But they accepted their proposals will not be ready in time to be presented as a Government position when Mrs May meets EU leaders Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk in Brussels on Thursday.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, one MP said the Commons votes scheduled for February 14 are likely to be a re-run of last week’s divisions on a series of backbench amendments, with the long-awaited “meaningful vote” on a proposed final deal coming later in the month.
Although this would leave insufficient time to pass the necessary legislation in the normal way by Brexit day on March 29, MPs in the group insisted it could be rushed through, saying: “If Parliament has the will to get the legislation passed, it will.”
Meanwhile, the Irish Government has accused the Prime Minister of harbouring unrealistic expectations over the backstop mechanism, which has polarised nationalists and unionists.
Many unionists believe the “insurance policy” to preserve a friction-less frontier on the island of Ireland could threaten the integrity of the UK if Northern Ireland’s regulations vary 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 the outcome and the backstop is not triggered.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in Brussels on Wednesday for meetings with European Council president Mr Tusk and European Commission president Mr 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 face-to-face talks in Brussels since the Withdrawal Agreement reached last November was rejected by the House of Commons.
It also 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”.