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'Special place in hell' for those who promoted Brexit without a plan says Tusk as PM meets main NI parties

European Council President Donald Tusk has said there is a "special place in hell" for those who backed Brexit "without even a sketch of a plan" as he met with Irish Premier Leo Varadkar in Brussels to make plans for a "fiasco" scenario where Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

In a joint press conference with the Taoiseach, Mr Tusk said the EU was not making "any new offer" to Theresa May on the Brexit deal.

Speaking alongside Mr Varadkar, he said: "The position of the EU27 is clear, as expressed in the documents agreed with the UK Government - that is the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration."

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He said a "sense of responsibility" meant they must prepare for a no-deal Brexit, adding : "I've been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely."

Mr Varadkar said that while he was "open to further discussions" with the UK Government, the Withdrawal Agreement remained "the best deal possible".

Mrs May speaking in Belfast on Tuesday. Credit: PA

"I think the events in London and the instability in British politics in recent weeks demonstrates exactly why we need a legal guarantee and a solution that is operable, that we know will work and will last, " he said.

As he shook hands with Mr Tusk after the press conference, Mr Varadkar was picked up by microphones telling him "they'll give you terrible trouble in the British press" for taking aim at Brexiters.

What has been the reaction to Donald Tusk's 'hell' comment?

  • A spokesperson for Downing Street said: "I think it is a question for Donald Tusk as to whether he considers the use of that kind of language to be helpful."
  • Nigel Farage told ITV News: "I think political hell does exist and I think all the MPs, all the political class who have done their best to overturn the greatest political exercise in the history of this country deserve their place there."
  • Arlene Foster accused Mr Tusk of being "deliberately provocative". "Clearly the pressure is beginning to mount in Brussels," she said. Earlier DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson described Mr Tusk as a "devilish Euro maniac".
  • Not all politicians rejected Mr Tusk's comments, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the European Commission President had spoken "a lot of sense" and said that the EU were "getting frustrated" with the "soap opera" he described Brexit as.

Speaking later during a press conference with Jean-Claude Juncker, the Taoiseach said the Prime Minister would be visiting Dublin on Friday night, placing the responsibility for finding a way through the impasse firmly at Mrs May's door.

He said: "I'm confident that a solution can be found, but we should bear in mind that the threat of no deal is not a threat that the European Union is making, it is not a threat that Ireland is making."

"This March 29 deadline is a deadline set in Britain by Britain and it is open to the UK to request an extension to Article 50, provided there's a purpose to that, or to revoke Article 50 if that's their wish."

In a message to Mrs May, Mr Juncker stood firm on the EU's position on the Withdrawal Agreement, saying the backstop is needed for "obvious, vital reasons" adding "alternative arrangements" could "never replace" it".

"She knows that the Commission is not prepared to reopen the issue," he said.

"The backstop is a guarantee for Ireland and it is a guarantee for the European Union because the Irish border is a European border," he continued.

  • ITV News Europe Editor James Mates believes that Mr Tusk's comments will not help talks Theresa May will hold in Brussels on Thursday where she is seeking adjustments to her Withdrawal Agreement.

The Prime Minister is set to fly to Brussels on Thursday following her two-day visit to Northern Ireland where she met with leading NI political parties.

During her visit to Belfast, Theresa May suggested she was seeking “changes” to the controversial backstop in her Brexit deal, rather than its total removal from the UK’s EU Withdrawal Agreement despite the EU's firm stance that is was not up for renegotiation.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald accused the Prime Minister of coming to Belfast with "no plan, no credibility and no honour" following a "very direct meeting" with Mrs May.

"We regard the position adopted by Mrs May and her government as one of hostility to Irish interests, we have told her that Irish public and political opinion is united on the matter of protecting Ireland north and south, and we have told her that certainly we will not blink," Mrs McDonald told reporters.

Members of Sinn Féin arriving at Stormont of their meeting with Theresa May. Credit: PA

Mrs May met the Ulster Unionist Party first thing on Wednesday, with leader Robin Swann calling on the Prime Minister to introduce direct rule government for Northern Ireland if no Brexit deal can be agreed.

The Alliance Party told ITV News after their meeting with Mrs May on Wednesday that the Prime Minister had left all options on table regarding the backstop.

The Democratic Unionist Party were the final party to meet Mrs May at Stormont House.

Speaking afterwards, Arlene Foster reiterated her position that the backstop is the "main problem".

On Tuesday, Mrs May had conversations with business and community leaders during her two-day trip to Belfast.

In a speech in Belfast, the Prime Minister restated her “unshakeable” commitment to avoiding a hard border in Ireland after Brexit, pledging: “The UK Government will not let that happen. I will not let that happen.”

But asked how she could convince the people of Northern Ireland to accept a Brexit deal which was stripped of the backstop, Mrs May said: “I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future.

“What Parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop.”

It was in that light that she was working with MPs, the Irish government and the EU to find a way to meet the commitment to take Britain out of the EU on March 29 with a deal which avoided a hard Irish border, she said.

The Irish Government accused the Prime Minister of harbouring unrealistic expectations over the backstop.

The mechanism has polarised nationalists and unionists.

Many unionists believe the “insurance policy” to preserve a frictionless frontier on the island of Ireland could threaten the integrity of the UK if Northern Ireland’s customs regulations varied from Great Britain after Brexit.

The Prime Minister is expected to meet the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein among others on Wednesday during Stormont talks Credit: Steve Parsons/PA).

Nationalists and many business leaders fear major disruption to trade and a hard border threatening peace process gains if no deal is struck and the backstop is not triggered.

Mrs May is due to visit the Belgian capital on Thursday, where she will hold a series of talks with key figures including Mr Tusk, Mr Juncker, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani and the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt.

It will be the Prime Minister’s first chance to hold first face-to-face talks in Brussels since the Withdrawal Agreement reached last November was rejected by the House of Commons.

And it comes a week after MPs voted for an amendment tabled by Conservative grandee Sir Graham Brady and backed by the Prime Minister which “requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.

Mrs May will seek to secure changes which can persuade MPs to support her deal in a series of votes expected on February 14.

But with the two front benches still divided over their red lines, Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson told ITV News that Mrs May was "running down the clock" on Brexit.

"She's almost trying to threaten no deal Brexit to her own backbenchers.

"That's no way to run a country. It's certainly no way to deal with the most significant negotiations facing everyone in this country probably since the Second World War.

" We hope that she can come to a deal. We hope that she'll come to her senses in that sense."