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Theresa May faces Sinn Fein fury over U-turn on Brexit backstop and hard border fears

Theresa May speaks to business leaders in Belfast yesterday
Theresa May speaks to business leaders in Belfast yesterday
Theresa May during a visit to a community centre
Theresa May at a roundtable discussion
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein and the pro-Remain parties will today challenge the Prime Minister on having no credible plan to prevent a hard border, while unionist leaders will urge her to stand firm against the backstop.

Theresa May will hold a series of meetings with Northern Ireland's political parties at Stormont on the second day of her visit.

The parties were deeply divided yesterday in response to her keynote Brexit address to business leaders in Belfast.

Sinn Fein claimed she was guilty of an "enormous act of bad faith" on the backstop and of offering only "platitudes and promises".

But the DUP insisted Mrs May must remain resolute in pressing Brussels for legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement.

Speaking ahead of her meeting with the Prime Minister, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill last night accused her of failing to outline any alternative to the backstop.

"I heard no evidence, I heard no commitment, I heard no suggestion, no proposal, anything that would deliver no hard border on this island," Mrs O'Neill said.

"We know the only way to do that is the issue of the backstop, the backstop which Theresa May and her Government negotiated with the EU. That is the only way in which we could avoid a hard border, that commitment needs to be lived up to."

Expressing disappointment with Mrs May's speech, Mrs O'Neill said it had contained nothing new.

"I heard no words of comfort, no assurances, I heard nothing that would leave the community here to be in any way in a better position than from before her visit," she added.

But the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly welcomed the Prime Minister's visit and the fact that she would be returning to Brussels "to seek change which can address our objections to the draft withdrawal agreement".

The South Belfast MP said: "The backstop is the problem and Parliament has spoken with a definitive voice to reject it.

"We want to reach a deal which can provide certainty for business but that also is in the long-term interests of Northern Ireland. It must be one which respects the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK."

Ms Little-Pengelly said it was time to test those in Brussels who had spoken positively about the need to seek creative solutions.

"There needs to be a political will to reach a consensus which works for the UK and also the EU. The Prime Minister must stand strong and press for the necessary legally binding changes," she added.

UUP leader Robin Swann called on Mrs May to "deliver on her promise to remove the backstop in order to protect the Belfast Agreement and the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK".

"What we need to see now is this message being carried through in negotiations with the European Union," he said.

"Put bluntly, that means that there can be no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the express consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland."

TUV leader Jim Allister said it was the content, not just the duration of the backstop, that Mrs May must remove.

"Once the UK has conceded the principle of treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the nation it will be very difficult to row back," he said.

"Brussels will argue that anything which replaces the backstop must be at least as bad as the backstop.

"There can be no compromise in favour of the backstop for any period of time."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party would be bringing a "simple and succinct message" to the Prime Minister today - that if she was sincere in protecting Northern Ireland from a no-deal Brexit, she will keep the backstop.

"The future of Northern Ireland cannot be left to majorities in England and Wales," he said.

"The British Government must deliver a deal that does not undermine the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and the only plausible way to do that is to deliver on the backstop."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said that with just 51 days to Brexit, the Prime Minister had no viable policy to avoid a hard border.

"The Prime Minister can keep stressing her commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to avoiding a hard border, but unless she has a coherent and realistic plan those warm words don't amount to much," he said.

"The only way to a hard border in Ireland is either for the whole UK or for Northern Ireland to be sufficiently aligned on customs and regulations."

He continued: "The Prime Minister has now walked away from the all-weather backstop as agreed in the withdrawal agreement. This is an act of bad faith.

"The Government has no plausible alternative and has reduced itself to reheating half-baked ideas that have debunked and dismissed."

Green Party leader Clare Bailey described Mrs May's speech as "weak and watery words from a weak and wobbly Prime Minister".

She said: "It's insulting that Prime Minster May came to Belfast with a history lesson on our peace process as the Brexit wrecking ball is being readied to crash through our communities."

Ukip leader Gerard Batten claimed Mrs May's visit was "an act of political boondoggling which makes it look like she's doing something".

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