Theresa May is heading to Northern Ireland in a bid to salvage her Brexit deal by finding an alternative to the “toxic” backstop proposal.
She will meet business leaders and politicians and pledge to deliver a deal that honours previous commitments and commands broad support in the province.
But the prime minister is facing demands from political leaders to dump the backstop from her Withdrawal Agreement as well as the threat of legal action against it.
Yet at the same time, in an uncompromising rebuff to Mrs May, Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney has said alternatives to the backstop are “wishful thinking”.
In a speech on Brexit at the start of her two-day visit, 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 that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland and that secures a majority in the Westminster parliament, which is the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
“As we do so, I hope we can also take steps to move towards the restoration of devolution – so that politicians in Northern Ireland can get back to work on the issues that matter to the people they represent.
“For ultimately, 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.
“As prime minister of the United Kingdom, it is a profound honour and duty to play my part in shaping that future and to do my utmost to support the peace, prosperity and progress that can give the people of Northern Ireland, the brightest future for generations.”
Ahead of the PM’s visit, the Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, who will meet Mrs May on day two of her visit, said a deal is possible but requires political will.
“Our message to the prime minister has been consistent,” she said. “The backstop is the problem. It drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent.
“If implemented, it would build a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Such an outcome would undermine both the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.
“The European Union must now accept the need for the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened. The toxic backstop must be dealt with.
“We want an orderly exit from the European Union which works for London, Dublin, Belfast and Brussels. It is possible but requires political will. This is not a time for intransigence.
“It is time to respect unionists and nationalists alike in Northern Ireland and deliver a deal which is sensible and practical.”
Mrs Foster said she had been encouraged by comments from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Mr Coveney that a hard border could be avoided.
“It is important that the scaremongering about barbed wire and checkpoints is exposed as nonsense,” she said. “Border communities should not have genuine fears exploited with such tall tales.”
In a potentially troublesome move for Mrs May, former Northern Ireland first minister Lord Trimble is planning to take the government to court over the protocol on Northern Ireland, which includes the backstop, claiming it breaches the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner and architect of the Good Friday Agreement plans to initiate judicial review proceedings to ensure that the protocol is removed from the Withdrawal Agreement.
But despite Arlene Foster’s optimism, Mr Coveney 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.”
And Mr Barnier, speaking in Brussels, said the deal agreed by Mrs May and the leaders of the 27 other EU members “cannot be reopened”.