Brexit: PM meets Stormont parties over NI goods dealon February 17, 2023 at 10:41 am

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Speculation is rising that agreement can be reached on post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Freight lorries travelling through the Port of BelfastImage source, PA Media

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is meeting Northern Ireland’s political parties amid speculation a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol could soon be struck.

Sources suggest a deal could be reached as early as next week on post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Mr Sunak will meet party leaders at a hotel near Belfast before travelling to meet EU leaders in Germany.

His foreign secretary, James Cleverly, will be in Brussels on Friday to meet the European Commission.

Mr Cleverly will meet European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, the Foreign Office confirmed, saying it was part of “ongoing engagement and constructive dialogue with the EU to find practical solutions that work for the people of Northern Ireland”.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the trade deal that was agreed to ensure the free movement of goods across the Irish land border after Brexit.

Stormont crisis

It is at the heart of a political impasse in Northern Ireland, with unionist parties arguing that placing an effective trade border across the Irish Sea undermines Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

The largest of those parties is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which refuses to take part in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government – introduced in the 1990s as a way of ending decades of violence – unless its concerns are resolved.

Speaking ahead of his party’s meeting with the prime minister, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said Northern Ireland should not be legally separate to the rest of the UK.

Even though the DUP came second in May 2022 elections to Sinn Féin – a republican party that accepts the protocol – a new Northern Ireland government cannot be formed without its support.

The DUP has said it must be satisfied with any settlement before it agrees to return to power-sharing.

But the deal has split political opinion and the UK and the EU have been in lengthy negotiations about making changes to how it operates.

It is understood the prime minister held some discussions with the DUP on Thursday evening.

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Analysis box by Jessica Parker, Brussels correspondent

Is a deal done? From what I hear, not quite.

In a way that is obvious because an agreement is not sealed until both sides sign on the dotted line. But diplomats in Brussels agree that a compromise plan isn’t quite there, yet.

The political tour that Rishi Sunak and his ministers are going on may be read as the kind of end-game choreography you’d expect to see before an announcement.

But an alternative reading is that the prime minister is going to use today’s talks with parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the DUP, to try and then press the EU for final concessions.

It would be a bold play at this stage when multiple sources, close to the talks, have indicated that an announcement next week is within reach.

But this is politics and it’s Brexit; it could all still fall apart.

Many eyes will be on Mr Sunak’s meeting with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, in Munich this weekend.

That discussion, I hear, is set to focus on any remaining differences.

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What are the main stumbling blocks?

There are two main areas of focus in the UK-EU negotiations: the movement of goods and how any disputes should be resolved.

As far back as October 2021 the EU and UK had some form of agreement on the movement of goods.

They both had proposals that goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and which are being consumed there, should face only light touch controls.

However, there has been no deal on what this would mean in practice.

Dispute resolution is mostly about the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which is the ultimate arbiter of EU law.

The UK government appears to want an arrangement where the ECJ’s role would be diluted or put at arms length.

Some Conservative MPs want the ECJ removed from protocol disputes altogether but the EU has said that would be impossible.

Rishi Sunak

Image source, Reuters

Ahead of Mr Sunak’s visit, No 10 said: “Whilst talks with the EU are ongoing ministers continue to engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.

PM ‘in listening mode’

The Alliance Party was the first to speak to Mr Sunak, at a hotel near Belfast, on Friday, with the party’s leader Naomi Long describing it as “a very constructive and very positive meeting”.

“It seems apparent that while he was not in a position to brief us about the detail, that things are gradually moving in the direction of a potential deal, but we are not over the line yet,” she said.

Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Colum Eastwood MP said “detail was scant” in his meeting, but he was “fairly optimistic” that an agreement was close.

Naomi Long

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said: “I don’t leave here knowing much more than I did when I went in, but certainly the prime minister was enthusiastic, engaged and positive.”

He added: “There is a nervousness, I would say, between the EU and the UK that there would be a running commentary on this and that could end up with things backsliding.

“I can understand that, but neither can they just dump something on front of us on a table and say: ‘There you are, there’s a deal, take it or leave it.'”

After the meetings at a hotel near Belfast the prime minister will travel to Munich for a security summit.

However, the prime minister’s efforts to reach a deal on the protocol have exposed tensions within his Conservative Party.

Former Brexit Minister Lord Frost told the Telegraph that a “feeble deal now” would “make things worse not better”, adding that “no deal is still better than a bad one”.

David Jones, deputy chairman of the European Research Group – a Eurosceptic group of Tory MPs – tweeted that Northern Ireland “must cease to be subject to laws made in Brussels”. “It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Anything less won’t work.”

Speaking on Thursday night, Tánaiste (Irish Deputy Prime Minister) Micheál Martin said the latest stages of the protocol talks had been “serious and substantive” and trust had been built between UK and EU negotiators.

“I’ve no doubt that the British prime minister, in advance of further discussions over the weekend and next week, wants to ascertain from the political parties in Northern Ireland a sense of the various positions that they have in relation to [the protocol],” he said.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was put in place as part of the post-Brexit deal agreed between the UK and the EU in December 2020.

It was required because Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU country.

It aims to ensure free movement of trade across the Irish land border by conducting checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain instead but it has been a source of tension since it came into force at the start of 2021.

Despite concerns among unionist parties, many members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are in favour of the protocol in some form remaining in place.

Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party and the SDLP have said improvements to the protocol are needed to ease its implementation.

Map of the the UK showing how goods travelling from GB into NI and onward to the Republic of Ireland.
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