Irish nationalists warn May: no-deal Brexit means a unity referendum

Drawn up in meetings co-ordinated by housing minister Kit Malthouse, it recasts the backstop as a "free trade agreement-lite", with a commitment on all sides there should be no hard border and an extended transition period to December 2021.

That's what last week's drama was all about - the so-called Brady amendment (which already feels a lifetime ago) passing Parliament paved the way for the prime minister to have another go at getting changes because it allows her to say to the European Union, "look, all those grumpy MPs could come on board, if only you are willing to give me this one thing - I know that you have said no in multiple languages, but it is the only way this is going to work".

Speaking in Belfast on Tuesday afternoon, May suggested she was seeking to modify, rather than remove, the contentious Irish backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement that she's agreed with the EU.

May is due in Brussels on Thursday with what she says is a parliamentary mandate to reopen the draft agreement, sealed after 18 months of intense and highly technical negotiations.

At meetings in Belfast, May tried to tackle the biggest obstacle to getting a deal ratified by the British parliament - an insurance policy covering the possible future arrangements for the border between EU-member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

The backstop is an insurance policy within the Withdrawal Agreement, created to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in all circumstances after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

Those taking the case argue that it is the only route to both ensuring there is a form of Brexit which is compliant with the agreement and which rules out a no-deal departure from the EU.

"So by March 29, if we are coming out with no deal with no executive, we need direct rule for Northern Ireland". The EU is looking to protect its single market and has said the backstop would only be a temporary arrangement.

"I know that there are some in the nationalist community in particular who worry that some of their existing rights could be eroded when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union", she said.

On January 15, her withdrawal deal was overwhelmingly voted down by lawmakers.

The prime minister also floated the prospect of a joint UK-Ireland World Cup bid for 2030 and said that "the ties of family and friendship between the UK and Ireland are more important than ever". Jacques Gounon, the chief executive of Eurotunnel's parent company, has said the awarding of the ferry operator contracts was "distortionary and anti-competitive" and would be a "unilateral breach not only of the concession agreement with Eurotunnel, but more widely of existing competition and state aid law".

The backstop is by far the most contentious part of the rejected deal for many lawmakers in Britain.

"And I know this has been the cornerstone around which the community in Northern Ireland has come together to deliver peace and prosperity".

"He asked us whether or not a letter which would be legally binding might be sufficient, but I think we would need to see what that contained to have an absolute assurance that it does give us an exit", Whittingdale said.