Brexit PM meets Stormont parties over NI goods deal

Brexit: PM meets Stormont parties over NI goods deal

February 17, 2023 at 00:04 GMT

Updated 9 minutes ago

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Rishi Sunak and NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris met Sinn Féin and other Stormont parties near Belfast

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with Northern Ireland’s political parties amid speculation an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol could soon be reached.

Sources are suggesting that an agreement on post-Brexit trade deals could be reached as early as next week.

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

His Foreign Minister is also holding talks with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

The Foreign Office said the James Cleverly meeting is part of an ongoing commitment 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 agreement agreed to ensure the free movement of goods across Ireland’s land border after Brexit.

Stormont Crisis

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

The largest of these parties is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which refuses to take part in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government – set up in the 1990s to end decades of violence – until its concerns are allayed.

Ahead of his party’s meeting with the Prime Minister, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said Northern Ireland should not be legally separated from the rest of the UK.

The DUP has stated that it must be satisfied with any settlement before agreeing to return to power-sharing.

But the deal has divided political opinion, and the UK and EU have engaged in protracted negotiations over changes to how it operates.

The PM is understood to have held some talks with the DUP on Thursday night.

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

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

The political tour being undertaken by Rishi Sunak and his ministers can be read as the kind of endgame choreography you would expect ahead of an announcement.

But an alternative reading is that the Prime Minister will use today’s talks with parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the DUP, to try and then pressure the EU into final concessions.

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

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

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

I understand this discussion is intended to focus on any remaining differences.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks?

Negotiations between the UK and the EU focus on two main areas: the movement of goods and how any disputes should be settled.

As early as October 2021, the EU and the UK had some kind of agreement on the movement of goods.

Both had suggestions that goods entering and consumed in Northern Ireland from the UK should only be subject to light touch checks.

However, what this would mean in practice was not agreed.

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

The UK government seems to want a rule that would dilute or distance the role of the ECJ.

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

‘Continue to play’

Ahead of Mr Sunak’s visit, No 10 said: “While talks with the EU are ongoing, ministers continue to meet with relevant stakeholders to ensure that any solution addresses the practical issues on the ground, meets our overarching objectives and fits the space Northern Ireland in the heart of the UK secures market.”

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said she believed it was “game up” for a protocol treaty and that “very significant progress had been made”.

“I believe that an agreement is absolutely possible and absolutely necessary and I hope that we will see a speedy successful conclusion to the matter,” she told reporters after meeting Mr Sunak.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who first met the PM at a hotel near Belfast on Friday, said she had “a very constructive and very positive meeting”.

“It seems obvious that while he hasn’t been able to fill us in on the details, things are gradually moving towards a possible deal, but we’re not over the mark yet,” she said.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said: “I don’t leave here knowing much more than I did when I started, but the Prime Minister was certainly enthusiastic, committed and positive.”

He added: “I would say there is a nervousness between the EU and the UK that there would be ongoing comment on this and that could lead to things backsliding.”

Social Democrat and Labor Party leader Colum Eastwood MP said there was “little detail” in his talks but was “quite optimistic” that an agreement was close.

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Mr Sunak will travel to Munich after his visit to Belfast

After the meeting, the Prime Minister travels to a security summit in Munich.

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

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

David Jones, deputy leader of the European Research Group – a Eurosceptic group of Tory MPs – tweeted that Northern Ireland “must stop being subject to the laws made in Brussels”. “It’s that simple,” he said. “Less is not possible.”

On Thursday evening, Micheál Martin, Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland) said the final stages of the protocol talks had been “serious and substantive” and that trust had been built between UK and EU negotiators.

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

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

It aims to ensure free trade across Ireland’s land border by imposing controls between Northern Ireland and Britain instead, but has caused tension since it came into force in early 2021.

Despite concerns from unionized parties, many members of the Assembly of Northern Ireland want the Protocol to remain in some form.

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

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