Prime Minister to see deep divisions of local parties on EU at first hand
Deep divisions over Brexit in Northern Ireland are set to be laid bare in front of Theresa May.
Sinn Fein said it will tell the Prime Minister bluntly that the province opposes withdrawal from the EU, and will renew its demand for special status for Northern Ireland.
But she will hear a very different message from the DUP if she meets the Stormont parties, currently locked in devolution talks.
Mrs May is touring the regions ahead of formally starting the process of the UK exiting the EU next Wednesday.
Senior sources said her trip would be mainly about seeking to provide reassurance over the impact of Brexit on the province, where 56% voted to remain in the EU in last year's referendum. Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill, who said she intends to meet Mrs May, warned: "The British Government are acting against the interest and the expressed wishes of a cross-community group of people here that want to stay in Europe.
"We will be making that message clear to Theresa May when she is here - very clear - that this is not good, this is bad news for the people of Ireland."
Her attack came as the SDLP demanded a common position on Brexit that defends the interests of people here. Criticising the PM, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "Over the last week, Theresa May has spoken of the need to deliver stability, particularly with the devolved administrations.
"And yet now her government has unilaterally decided to invoke Article 50 next week, before talks aimed at restoring devolution to Northern Ireland have concluded.
"This course of action will maximise uncertainty at a time when we are working to stabilise our institutions."
The Foyle MLA also hit out at "the embarrassing ignorance" of Brexit Minister David Davies under questioning last week in Westminster.
"It exposed how little weight they attach to the will of people here," he argued.
But Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said a consensus to oppose Brexit already exists between the majority of parties after withdrawal was rejected by most voters in Northern Ireland in last June's Referendum.
He called on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to now "stand up for our national interests across the island, at European level, to secure special designated status for the north within the EU". Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said his party believed "all possible future arrangements will be lesser compared to what the UK has at present, and is set to throw away".
The former minister added: "The provision of a proper plan for Brexit needs to be a core component of any agreement emerging from current talks."
UUP MP Danny Kinahan said: "The final Brexit deal will have significant, lasting consequences for our universities, farming & agri-food, the community and voluntary sector, and the business community, amongst others, so it is crucial that Northern Ireland interests are represented."
Green Party MLA Steven Agnew said: "We have no sense of what Brexit actually means, particularly in the Northern Ireland context," adding: "Crucially, we should have the ability to reject the deal if it doesn't serve our interests."
TUV leader Jim Allister tweeted it was "good news" that talks are to begin and added: "Exciting new era unfolding for our great United Kingdom."