Fears for a hard Brexit grow after angry May slams EU's 'disrespect'
The threat of a chaotic no deal Brexit has been ramped up after Theresa May angrily accused the European Union of creating an "impasse" in negotiations.
The Prime Minister said that EU proposals to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union after Brexit would destroy the integrity of the UK.
Her tone barely concealed her anger as she insisted Brussels must respect the UK and respond to her Chequers plan.
Yesterday's intervention drew praise from DUP leader Arlene Foster, who backed Mrs May for "standing firm" against the EU.
But Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald dismissed it as "tired rhetoric".
Mrs May was returning to the UK furious at her humiliating treatment by EU leaders at a summit in Salzburg.
"The EU should be clear: I will not overturn the result of the referendum. Nor will I break up my country," she said in a live afternoon address from Downing Street.
"We need serious engagement on resolving the two big problems in the negotiations and we stand ready.
"In the meantime, we must and will continue the work of preparing ourselves for no deal."
Her speech dramatically raised the likelihood of a no deal Brexit - sending the value of the pound falling - and European Council president Donald Tusk rapidly moved to offer an olive branch to the embattled Prime Minister.
Mr Tusk conceded Mrs May's Brexit proposal was a "step in the right direction" as negotiations threatened to reach a frosty impasse.
The former Polish Prime Minister, who was criticised for goading Mrs May with social media posts during the EU summit, said he was a "true admirer" of the Conservative Party leader.
"After intensive consultations with member states, we decided that for the good of the negotiations, and out of respect for the efforts of PM May, we will treat the Chequers plan as a step in the right direction," Mr Tusk said. The UK stance presented just before and during the Salzburg meeting was surprisingly tough and in fact uncompromising. The response of the EU27 leaders was to reiterate our trust in chief negotiator Michel Barnier and to reiterate our position on the integrity of the single market and the Irish backstop.
"While understanding the logic of the negotiations, I remain convinced that a compromise, good for all, is still possible," he added.
However, it is unclear what form of compromise Mr Tusk was talking about.
Sources in Dublin insisted nobody is contemplating changing the backstop, and that "the border issue is solid". Another source said that even amid the threat of a no deal scenario, Mrs May had herself acknowledged the need to avoid a hard border.
The Conservative Party conference is looming, and Irish sources said they believe some of her rhetoric was designed to keep frustrated Brexiteers at bay.
In Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster said Mrs May was right to "stand firm in the face of disrespectful, intransigent and disgraceful behaviour by the European Union".
"The United Kingdom will not be treated in such a manner," she said. "I welcome today's clear statement by the Prime Minister and in particular that Her Majesty's Government will not countenance any new regulatory or customs barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom."
Mrs Foster also repeated her warning that the DUP will veto any "attempt to undermine the economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom".
"Our red line from day one of these negotiations has been that there can be no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain," she said.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann also welcomed Mrs May's statement.
"Brexit cannot and must not be used to establish an internal border within the United Kingdom of any form," he said. "The referendum was about whether or not the UK left the EU, it was not about whether or not Northern Ireland left the UK."
But Ms McDonald gave a very different reaction, accusing Mrs May of "deflection".
"Theresa May made a statement today which was billed as a major one in respect of Brexit negotiations. It was, regrettably, no more than an exercise in tired rhetoric," she said.
"Rather than accepting that her so-called 'Chequers Plan' fails to resolve fundamental issues, Theresa May has engaged in deflection.
"Her focus has unfortunately remained on infighting within her own party and her pact with the DUP, instead of coming to an acceptable negotiating position."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused Mrs May's Government of "belligerence".
"The Prime Minister is doubling down on her already unworkable 'take it or leave it' belligerence as a tactic to deliver Brexit," he said. "Despite the EU attempting to give the UK encouragement to take steps that will be in the best interests of our citizens, the Prime Minister has chosen to continue with her failed strategy."
A spokesman for Tanaiste Simon Coveney said the Irish Government "welcomed" the fact that Mrs May reiterated the UK's commitment on the need to avoid a hard border as well as the backstop.
Earlier, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted negotiations are entering a "rocky patch", but he believes a deal can be reached.
Speaking in Co Offaly, Mr Varadkar said: "I think we can have a deal.
"I think we're entering into a rocky patch over the next couple of weeks.
"But I'm determined to keep working and to secure that deal that we need before the end of the year... ideally in October or November."