March 5. 2024. 1:14

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Northern Ireland post-Brexit talks nearly done, EU says

The European Union’s Brexit chief said on Tuesday (21 February) that the finishing line was in sight for talks on easing post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland ahead of a second successive day of discussions with his British counterparts.

After weeks of intense London-Brussels talks, momentum has been building towards a deal to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol – the arrangements agreed to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland when Britain exited the EU in 2020.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told his cabinet that intensive talks continued, his spokesman said, as his foreign and Northern Irish ministers prepared to speak to European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic later on Tuesday.

“We have made good progress (..) We clearly can see the finishing line. But in such a negotiation, being close doesn’t mean being done”, Sefcovic told a press conference, declining to say when exactly an agreement might be reached.

Ireland’s prime minister said the two sides had made progress and that Sunak should be given time to finalise a deal.

“I can’t say whether or not we’ll have an agreement this week. I know that a huge amount of progress has been made in terms of coming to an agreement on the protocol,” Leo Varadkar told a news briefing in Dublin.

“I know that Prime Minister Sunak wants to consult with his party, wants to consult with the parties in Northern Ireland and I think it’s really important that we allow some time and space for that to happen and avoid any commentary that might make it more difficult for this to be agreed.”

The talks have stepped up a gear in recent days, including between Sunak and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose opposition to the protocol must be overcome to make any deal work.

While opinion polls consistently show a majority of Northern Irish voters – who earlier opposed Brexit – favour the idea of the protocol, the imposition of checks on goods coming from the rest of the United Kingdom has angered many pro-British unionists who see it as undermining the union with Britain.

The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party, has boycotted the region’s devolved power-sharing parliament for the last year in protest at the protocol.

Sunak has also been meeting pro-Brexit Conservatives to ease their concerns around any potential deal.

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

Below are details on the talks and hurdles to be overcome:

Why Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland is a British-ruled province and part of the United Kingdom that shares a long border with Ireland, a member of the European Union.

When Britain left the European Union, what to do about trade over the open border was one of the most difficult parts of the Brexit negotiations.

Was it in the Northern Ireland Protocol?

To avoid the need for a hard border with Ireland and to prevent goods flowing unchecked into the EU’s single market, former prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to effectively leave Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods. This means the province has to follow the bloc’s rules in relation to those movements.

Northern Ireland also remains part of the UK’s customs territory, effectively creating a customs border in the sea between Britain and Northern Ireland. Pro-British communities in the province say this erodes their place within the United Kingdom.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party, also says the province should not have to follow EU laws without having a say.

London says the bureaucracy – checks and paperwork for the trade of some goods – created by the protocol is threatening the 1998 peace agreement that mostly ended three decades of sectarian violence in the province.

While opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of Northern Irish voters – who opposed Brexit – favour the idea of the protocol, the province’s assembly and power-sharing government have not sat for a year due to unionist opposition.

Technical talks resumed in October for the first time in seven months, shortly after Rishi Sunak was appointed Britain’s third prime minister in as many months.

What are the main issues?

British foreign minister James Cleverly has said “intensive work” was continuing to find a solution to what the government says are several outstanding issues:

In January, Britain and the EU agreed a way forward on sharing live data on trade with Northern Ireland, ushering in a likely agreement on customs that would involve green lanes for goods bound only for Northern Ireland and red lanes for products heading into Ireland.

Officials have declined to comment on how they will ease the concerns of the DUP and some pro-Brexit members of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party over the role of the European Court of Justice, or rather the application of EU law in a British-governed province.

The DUP says any new arrangement “must give the people of Northern Ireland a say in the making of the laws which govern them”.

The protocol specifies those EU regulations and directives with which Northern Ireland must remain aligned, and means new EU acts may be added to those that apply in Northern Ireland.

The Telegraph newspaper said this month that the role of the ECJ was likely to be presented differently by the EU and Britain. London would play up the role of Northern Irish judges, while the ECJ will be the ultimate arbiter of disputes about EU law in the province. This has drawn criticism from Brexit-supporting Conservatives, who say it does not solve the problem of Northern Ireland having to follow EU law.

Opposition or support?

The British government has been at pains to keep the negotiations as private as possible, but this has fuelled speculation over how far the two sides have moved to overcome some of the issues.

At a meeting with Sunak this month, the DUP tentatively welcomed progress in the talks but reiterated its seven tests to be able to approve any deal.

Pro-Brexit Conservatives, who are part of the so-called European Research Group (ERG), have said they will support the stance of the DUP, while raising concerns over the continued role of EU law in Northern Ireland and over the government’s reported plan to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

The Northern Ireland Protocol bill, if passed by parliament, would give the British government the power to unilaterally decide to all but renege on the agreement.

Some ERG members fear Sunak is negotiating little more than a fudge to the existing protocol.

Sunak, who has been meeting with the ERG to ease their fears, has repeatedly said he wants to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and find solutions to practical problems.