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Brussels-bound PM May is left in no doubt over bitter Brexit divisions

Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Stormont House yesterday
Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Stormont House yesterday
DUP leader Arlene Foster after meeting Mrs May
UUP delegation led by Robin Swann
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with party colleagues

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

Arlene Foster has called for "cool heads and pragmatism" as the Prime Minister flies to Brussels today to seek significant changes to her Brexit deal.

The DUP leader last night said Theresa May must press the EU strongly for legally binding changes to the backstop.

But Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill said it was time for the Prime Minister to ditch the DUP, not the backstop.

Our political leaders remain deeply divided about the withdrawal agreement despite holding talks with Mrs May at Stormont yesterday.

Mrs Foster accused European Council president Donald Tusk of being disrespectful after he suggested there was a "special place in hell" for those who promoted Brexit without a plan.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, she said: "It is a time for cool heads and pragmatism. If minds are focused, then we can reach a deal."

She said that she had delivered a "simple and straightforward message" to the Prime Minister to "stand strong in Brussels" and remain faithful to her parliamentary promise to seek legally binding changes to the backstop.

"We want to get a deal which works for the entire UK but also importantly one that works for our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, too," she said.

"But people need to be realistic. There can only be an agreement if it can command the necessary support in Parliament.

"The backstop is the core of the problem.

"The Prime Minister must press for it to be dealt with.

"Rather than cast insults, now is the time to concentrate on genuine diplomacy and solutions."

She hit out at those "scaremongering about a hard border, checkpoints, barbed wire and violence" and claimed they were being "deliberately misleading".

Mrs Foster said people expected their political leaders "whether in London, Dublin or Brussels to be focused on getting a deal rather than playing political games".

But as the Prime Minister prepares to fly to Brussels, Mrs O'Neill said: "Theresa May has an opportunity to bring an end to the chaos and the uncertainty.

"To do achieve that, it isn't the backstop that she needs to ditch, it is the DUP."

Also writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, the Sinn Fein vice-president rounded on her party's former partner at Stormont.

"We've had two years of a British Government pandering to the DUP and look where that has got us," she said.

"The DUP are wreckers like their friends in the ERG (European Research Group). The government here collapsed because of the DUP and they have now brought their dysfunctionality and chaos into the heart of the Brexit process."

Mrs O'Neill claimed that the DUP wasn't interested in a sensible Brexit deal "just as they aren't interested in the rights of citizens here or in restoring power-sharing unless it is on their terms". She insisted that a border poll must be held in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Speaking yesterday after meeting the Prime Minister, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald accused Mrs May of coming to Belfast with "no plan, no credibility and no honour".

She said: "We have told her that 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 or Irish people... are over and will not return."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mrs May hadn't filled him with confidence about her ability to broker a deal that included the backstop.

"These are extremely serious times. People can be in no doubt that we are heading towards a hard border if the backstop is not banked prior to March 29; a retrograde step that will devastate our economy and our hard-won peace," he said.

"We made it very clear to Theresa May that Northern Ireland must stay in the single market and the customs union if our interests are to be protected. Westminster must heed that. "

UUP leader Robin Swann said the Prime Minister must introduce direct rule here if there is a no-deal Brexit.

"She has to put direct rule in place come March 30 because Northern Ireland needs political leadership and it needs political direction," he said.

Mr Swann claimed Mrs May appeared reluctant to talk about efforts to restore power-sharing.

"The conversation we were having with the Prime Minister was initially about Brexit, we had to drag her to a place where we actually started to talk about how we get these institutions back up and running," he said.

The UUP leader said Karen Bradley should move to begin talks to restore devolution. "If some parties do not want to participate, that's up to them. They will be self-excluding. It was done at the time of the Belfast Agreement negotiations, so there is no reason why it can't be done now," he added.

Speaking after meeting the Prime Minister, Alliance leader Naomi Long said the time for repeating red lines was gone.

"What we need now, and the only lines we are interested in, are black and white on paper, an actual deal," she said.

"That is the only thing that is actually going to reassure the public; it is the only thing that is going to reassure business."

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