Theresa May will insist she can secure a Commons majority for a Brexit deal that “commands broad support” in Northern Ireland as efforts continue to find an alternative to the controversial backstop.
The Prime Minister will use a speech in Northern Ireland on Tuesday to acknowledge that it is a “concerning time” but “we will find a way to deliver Brexit” that honours commitments including avoiding a hard border with Ireland.
On Wednesday Mrs May will hold talks with Northern Ireland’s political leaders including the DUP’s Arlene Foster, who has promised to tell the Prime Minister the proposed border backstop “drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent” and would effectively create a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
After two days in Northern Ireland, Mrs May will travel to Brussels on Thursday to meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Meanwhile in Westminster, the working group bringing together senior Eurosceptic and former Remain-supporting Tories will continue efforts to agree alternatives to the backstop along the lines of the Malthouse Compromise.
Talks involving Conservatives including Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson along with former Remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green will continue in Whitehall, chaired by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
The first meeting on Monday was described as “detailed and constructive” by the Brexit department.
But Brussels has restated its opposition to any attempt to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, insisting the backstop was the “only operational solution” to the border question.
In her speech, Mrs May will say: “I know this is a concerning time for many people here in Northern Ireland.
“But we will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland.”
The backstop is effectively an insurance arrangement required by the EU to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains open if no wider deal is agreed on future UK/EU trade.
It would see the UK enter into a temporary customs union with the EU if no trade deal is sealed by the end of a transition period after Brexit, which lasts until December 2020 and could be extended to the end of 2022.
Northern Ireland would also abide by EU single market rules on goods, to avoid any need for regulatory checks of products crossing the border.
But critics fear the arrangements could lead to the UK being trapped indefinitely in a customs union, scuppering future trade deals with markets around the world.
And the DUP strongly rejects any measure which could lead to divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, effectively creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
MPs voted last week to say they would only back Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement if the backstop was replaced by “alternative arrangements”.
In her speech, Mrs May will say she will find a solution “that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland” and “secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament, which is the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland”.
And she will call for “steps to move towards the restoration of devolution” so that Northern Ireland’s politicians “can get back to work on the issues that matter to the people they represent”.
Mrs May will say: “The measure of this moment in Northern Ireland’s history must be more than whether we avoid a return to the challenges of the past.
“It must be how, together, we move forwards to shape the opportunities of the future.”
Senior European Union figures have strongly rejected calls for the Withdrawal Agreement to be rewritten to remove the backstop.
Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the deal agreed by Mrs May and the leaders of the 27 other EU members “cannot be reopened”.
He said the EU was “ready to work on alternative solutions during transition”, restating Brussels’ position that the backstop had to remain in place unless and until a replacement could be agreed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was ready to listen to proposals to solve the border “riddle”, but needs to hear from Britain how it thinks it can be done.
Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney said alternatives to the backstop were “wishful thinking”.
He said: “The Irish protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement already allows for alternative arrangements or alternative solutions to the backstop and if they’re there they can replace the backstop.
“The problem is that none of those ideas around alternative arrangements stand up to scrutiny, we have certainly not seen any that have.”