Brexit: No meeting of minds in Belfast or Brussels over backstop

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Jean-Claude Juncker will meet Theresa May in Brussels on Thursday as she attempts to win changes to her Brexit deal

How many times have we been here before?

That's the question journalists and politicians asked themselves on a cold February morning at Stormont.

The prime minister was back in town.

The purpose of her visit: talks with the main political parties about Brexit and the sticky wicket issue of the backstop.

But such is the news agenda these days, that even as the prime minister's motorcade drove up to Stormont House, joggers and dog-walkers continued on with their morning, unfazed by her arrival.

Maybe it's Brexit fatigue.

Or maybe it might be because her visit to Northern Ireland this week, while bringing with it the usual media attention, revealed very little that was new or of substance.

She came seeking to reassure people, but the only consensus she seemingly managed to achieve was that the majority of Stormont's parties are none the wiser about the government's Brexit strategy.

The pro-remain parties in NI left their meetings with the PM with no more clarity than they had going into it.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
After meeting the prime minister the Sinn Féin president say Mrs May had 'no credibility'

Their sound bites of "protect the backstop" and "the time for assurances is over" could have been heard months ago (and they were).

The stances haven't changed and they were quick to accuse the prime minister of wasting time and running down the Brexit clock.

It's fitting that Theresa May chose to spend a good chunk of her week in Northern Ireland, given that the Irish border is the issue upon which Brexit almost entirely rests.

But she left having made little more of an impact than when she arrived.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
DUP leader Arlene Foster said Mrs May must 'stand strong' in her talks with the EU

And by the time her motorcade drove off again, attention had already shifted almost entirely to Brussels.

EU Council President Donald Tusk caused political temperatures to rise by saying there is a "special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it safely".

The NI Secretary Karen Bradley attempted to calm flaring tempers by urging people to choose their words carefully at what is obviously a febrile time in politics.

But not everyone was listening to that message.

DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson upped the ante by calling President Tusk "devilish", while Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald described the remark as an accurate reflection of the "absolute outrage" some people in NI have towards those responsible for handling the Brexit negotiations.

EU not for turning

Thursday sees the prime minister in Brussels, where she will attempt to discuss potential changes to the backstop in the withdrawal agreement.

It comes just a day after Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar was welcomed with open arms and received support from top-level EU officials.

Again the same message came loud and clear: We are not for turning.

The British government remains publicly optimistic about its chances of getting the EU to consider some kind of legal changes to it - but Mrs May doesn't just have to persuade officials in Brussels to compromise.

Image source, AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,
Leo Varadkar arrived in Brussels on Wednesday to a warm welcome

The Irish government holds a key role in the Brexit soap opera.

On Friday, all eyes will be back on Belfast when the taoiseach meets the Stormont parties, before heading back to Dublin where he'll have dinner with Mrs May.

He is under little pressure from his political rivals in Dublin to soften his stance, all of them having urged support for the backstop and he will no doubt reject any arguments the UK government makes about changes.

Earlier this week the DUP said it wanted direct Brexit talks with the Irish government, but an Irish government spokesperson said any talks about the UK's withdrawal from the EU needed to go through EU channels.

I'd bet on Mr Varadkar sitting down with the DUP at some point on Friday, as both sides have said they want to keep lines of communications open.

But while the battle over the Brexit backstop persists, don't expect a meeting of minds in Belfast, Dublin or Brussels.