Rishi Sunak set for Northern Ireland Protocol talks with Stormont leaderson February 17, 2023 at 12:04 am

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Rishi Sunak is in Belfast as speculation rises that a deal could be done with the EU next week.

Rishi SunakImage source, Reuters

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is to meet Stormont’s political parties amid speculation that a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol could soon be done.

He arrived in Belfast on Thursday night and will speak to party leaders on Friday morning.

UK and EU negotiators have been in talks for over a year about changing the controversial post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

But sources have suggested that an agreement could be sealed next week.

The Northern Ireland parties will want the prime minister to give them the details of any deal during his visit.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has said it must be satisfied with any settlement before it agrees to return to power-sharing at Stormont.

It has blocked for functioning of the devolved government in Northern Ireland for the past year as part of its protest against the protocol.

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.

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

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Analysis box by Jayne McCormack, NI political correspondent

At times it’s felt like a marathon – long and winding, with serious stamina required and the potential to hit a wall.

Now a visit from the prime minister and more senior meetings in Brussels suggests that finishing touches to a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol might finally, really, be on.

The government was trying to keep the prime minister’s arrival in Belfast low-key – a sign of how sensitive a stage they feel this process is at.

Sources close to Rishi Sunak say he wants to keep the politicians most affected by the protocol up to date.

But the Stormont parties may be left with more questions than answers about the detail of a deal.

And for the DUP the devil will be in the detail before it decides whether to back an agreement and end its boycott of devolved government.

The UK and the EU now appear to be sprinting to the finish line but can they maintain the pace or could political hurdles yet slow them down?

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Ahead of his 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.

“The prime minister… [is] travelling to Northern Ireland this evening to speak to political parties as part of this engagement process.”

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 has built up” 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].”

After the meetings in Belfast the prime minister will travel to Munich for a security summit.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

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.

Unionist parties oppose the protocol and argue 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 DUP – it is preventing a government from being formed in Northern Ireland in protest against the protocol.

But a majority of 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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