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Michel Barnier meets Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill in Brussels next Monday to discuss Brexit ... does he know what he's letting himself in for?

Separate delegations will not present a single voice speaking up for Northern Ireland, but competing voices talking at cross-purposes. No change there then


Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster

Be careful what you wish for. Europe has honed in on Northern Ireland as a make-or-break issue in the Brexit talks. Now, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill are reportedly heading to Brussels on Monday for face-to-face talks with Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator.

Even the hardest of Brexiteers couldn't fail to feel a shiver of sympathy for the divisive Frenchman. He doesn't know what he's let himself in for.

Ulster is the morass into which many politicians have blundered without preparation, and it rarely goes well. Barnier is unlikely to find the experience any more enjoyable. As an institution, the EU functions on making deals. Negotiations drag on through endless sessions and late-night sittings. Eventually, though, they always sign the deal. Northern Ireland couldn't be more different.

Here negotiations drag on, too, but 11th-hour deadlines have a much higher chance of passing without agreement. Then, it's all about apportioning blame. That pattern was followed to a tee after the talks over the Irish Language Act failed to break the long-running impasse. Both sides retreated to their respective bunkers.

It may be that a deal won't be possible in Brussels, either, and that Brexit talks will also end in failure later this year. But, if so, then placing Northern Ireland at the heart of the negotiations could be seen in retrospect as the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back.

The stakes could not be higher for the former First Minister and the woman who would now be Deputy First Minister had the latest round of talks led to the restoration of Stormont.

They will head to Brussels early next week not only with a responsibility to gain some partisan concessions, as in normal talks, but to seek solutions which will not adversely affect Northern Ireland as a whole post-Brexit.

That largely means ensuring trade both north and south and east and west remains as smooth as possible. There's lots of loose talk about customs posts on the border becoming potential targets for terrorism post-Brexit, but it's economic worries which are foremost in people's minds. The local economy is fragile enough without sustaining further shocks.

The job for the DUP leader in that respect is much trickier. The Leave vote was higher than expected in Northern Ireland, but 56% of people here, fearful of a future outside the EU, still voted to Remain.

The DUP is entitled to hold the opposite view, but the fierceness of the party leader's determination to pursue what is generally regarded as a hard Brexit does present certain problems when it comes to claiming that she has the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland at heart. The money wrestled from the Tories after last year's General Election could be brought home and held aloft as a collective bounty. Everyone, regardless of political persuasion, needs hospitals and roads.

Deals done in Brussels are much more divisive by definition. The wishes of those implacably opposed to Brexit and those cheering it on cannot both be satisfied.

Arlene Foster's intention may simply be to go to Brussels and lay down some red lines, principally that Northern Ireland must not be sheared off from its principal market on mainland Britain by a new border in the Irish Sea, a proposal which she's dubbed "constitutionally unacceptable" and "economically catastrophic".

If so, then Mr Barnier could reasonably reply that the onus lies on the British side to explain how its internal market can be preserved intact while also abiding by the promise made in December's protocol to avoid any regulatory divergence between Ireland north and south. That's certainly the line the Taoiseach is taking.

"With some technological jiggery-pokery," could well be the DUP leader's answer to that, presumably of a kind which the EU is now advocating be applied on the new maritime border. If it works at sea, why not on land?

It still leaves her with a mountain to climb when it comes to persuading nationalists that their rights and identity as Irish citizens will be as secure in the United Kingdom as a borderless European Union. It's not immediately obvious how Mrs Foster can do that, but she absolutely must, because the long-term survival of the Union depends on making nationalists feel comfortable with the political culture of the state.

Michelle O'Neill's task is much easier. After decades of deep-rooted hostility to European interference - the IRA's notorious Green Book wears its opposition to what was then called the EEC proudly on its sleeve - Sinn Fein has become peculiarly enthusiastic about the continent.

That's partly down to a 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' mentality, which makes republicans believe that whoever is standing in the way of Britain's ambitions can't be all bad; but also because Europe presents an opportunity to incrementally harmonise institutions on both sides of the border, creating a sort of prototype united Ireland.

Whatever happens after Brexit, Sinn Fein will either get to enjoy the ideological benefits of continued regulatory alignment, or else be in a position to sow discontent around whatever replaces it. It's a win-win situation for them, giving the party's deputy leader every incentive to back Michel Barnier's hardline stance.

In her tweet announcing next week's visit to Brussels, O'Neill has already expressed her gratitude to the EU chief for holding the line against the Brexiteers. He'll meet no resistance there.

It's Arlene Foster who must be wooed. Having claimed to be concerned about Northern Ireland, it will be instructive to see how far Barnier is willing to go to reach out to unionists. It's a test for him as much as for them.

Monday's meetings may be largely a side-show. The substantive negotiations are taking place at a higher level.

What's clear, though, is that the separate delegations heading to Brussels next week will not present a single voice speaking up on Northern Ireland's behalf, but two competing voices talking at cross-purposes, each needing the other to lose. Same as ever, in other words.

Talking to Michel Barnier changes nothing as long as Sinn Fein and the DUP are unable to speak the same language to one another. If anything, that divide is getting wider.

The Ulster Unionists came out against Brexit during the referendum, but are equally unhappy with the EU's stance on the Irish border, dubbing it an attempt to "annex" Northern Ireland. Differences over an Irish Language Act are ultimately reconcilable, albeit that they haven't been so far.

Divisions over Brexit are much more deeply rooted. They go right to the heart of Northern Ireland's identity.

Belfast Telegraph