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Analysis: Show of strength by Northern Ireland business community in halls of Parliament

The elephant in the room of course remained the stark division between the DUP and the Northern Ireland business lobby on the issue of Brexit, or to be precise, the backstop.
Ryan McAleer in London

SHUFFLING down the ramp under the drizzle and Cromwell, the dozens of business people from the north making their way through the airport-like security into Westminster yesterday afternoon found themselves treated to a loud cry through the railing above their heads.

"There’s no one in there, they've all gone home!"

She wasn't wrong. Inside, the normally bustling Westminster Hall was virtually empty. Even outside, the normally relentless protestors were somewhat muted, perhaps a direct result of the lack of MPs inside to harangue.

With 300-odd people making their way through the quiet halls of Parliament, there was very much a sense of a group of students preparing to sit a mid-summer repeat exam.

Prorogation or not, the event attracted a significant number of influential Irish business figures, who rubbed shoulders with a mix of MPs from the north and Britain.

Billed as the biggest ever northern business delegation to descend on Westminster, the subject at hand was the need for economic change in Northern Ireland.

It was a show of strength by the NI business community, with the same Brexit message they have been hammering home for three years: 'We need a deal.'

For DUP MP Nigel Dodds however, whose name adorned the official invites for the event, Brexit was not up for discussion at the event, with the media at least.

Nevertheless, he sounded an optimistic tone from the podium on the potential for progress in the coming weeks.

The first to address the packed and stifling pavilion room overlooking the Thames, there was no sign of the recent frostiness with Sinn Féin.

In fact, the north Belfast MP said he was pleased at being able to share yesterday's platform with Sinn Féin's west Belfast MP Paul Maskey, who followed him at the microphone.

The elephant in the room of course remained the stark division between the DUP and the Northern Ireland business lobby on the issue of Brexit, or to be precise, the backstop.

Both have strived to ensure cordial relations in the past year, but there can be no getting away from the tension that exists.

Last November, former British Prime Minister Theresa May found key allies in the north's business community for her much maligned EU withdrawal deal and its UK-wide backstop proposal.

That deal appears dead. But in recent days, chatter has grown of the potential for a return to the EU's original proposal of a Northern Ireland only backstop.

Of course anathema to the DUP, the sense from London yesterday was that the business support for the UK-wide backstop would likely directly transfer to an NI-only arrangement.

With Boris Johnson opening the doors of 10 Downing Street for a smaller band of the north's business figures last night, he might find the extra encouragement he needs if he is to shaft the DUP on the backstop, as some speculate he may do.

Ironically, the man who famously said "f**k business", may be the second consecutive British Prime Minister to find a key ally in Northern Ireland's business community.

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