Leading article

All eyes on Brexit talks in Brussels

Three different sets of negotiations in separate jurisdictions are scheduled to take place today which will all be followed closely across Ireland, north and south.

By far the most important will be the long-awaited Brexit talks between the UK and the European Union, which are expected to commence in Brussels with a meeting between Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief negotiator, and the British government's representative, David Davis.

Elsewhere, less formal exchanges are due to be resumed over the prospect of the DUP supporting the incoming Conservative administration at Westminster and the possibility of devolved powers returning to Stormont.

There can be no doubt that, as a result of the serious reversal suffered by his party in the UK general election, Mr Davis will be a much weakened figure when he faces Mr Barnier.

All the confident predictions by senior Tories that Britain would leave the EU on its own terms, and insist if necessary on a so-called hard Brexit, with calamitous consequences on both sides of the Irish border, have swiftly evaporated.

Prime Minister Teresa May has been left clinging to office by her finger-nails, and will have little option other than accept that the UK will have to pay a previously unthinkable fee of staggering proportions to the EU before any withdrawal can be completed.

Indeed, when it is taken into account that, in addition to the enormous bill which is looming, the UK electorate has never been asked to give a specific view on other vital issues, including the future of the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of European Court of Justice, a powerful case can be made for a second referendum on the validity of any final agreement.

That is ultimately a matter for Mrs May, who must first give herself some breathing space in the House of Commons by coming to an understanding with the ten-strong group of DUP MPs.

It has come to be realised after a period of colourful but largely exaggerated speculation that the DUP will always almost inevitably back the Tories in any vote of confidence, in order to prevent a general election which might well result in Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arriving in Downing Street.

Arlene Foster is therefore in no real position to demand sweeping concessions on a range of fronts, although, given the wider sense of near panic in Conservative ranks, it is still essential that clarification of the potential deal is publicly established.

The idea that Mrs May could engage in nodding and winking with the DUP at Westminster, while her Stormont secretary of state claims to be an independent chair of the discussions between the main Assembly parties, is among the key obstacles to the restoration of a power-sharing executive

However, regardless of what happens in Brussels and London in the coming days, a pragmatic approach on all sides in Belfast is still capable of delivering significant progress.

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