April 13. 2024. 5:54

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Hopes of deal on N. Ireland protocol as EU chief to meet UK PM


The prospect of a deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland appeared tantalisingly close Sunday (26 February) as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced they were to meet in the UK “for final talks”.

The planned meeting on Monday follows months of intensive negotiations over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol which was signed between London and Brussels as part of the UK’s Brexit divorce from the European Union.

The protocol has kept Northern Ireland in the European single market – to the anger of the province’s pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Sunak and von der Leyen “agreed to continue their work in person towards shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland”, a joint statement issued on Sunday said.

Any revision of the protocol will have to reassure not just the DUP but also some sections of Sunak’s Conservative Party which fear a fraying of bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The two leaders were expected “to meet late lunchtime Monday for final talks” in Berkshire, a county west of London, a statement released by Sunak’s Downing Street office added.

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.

‘Sovereignty’

“The prime minister wants to ensure that any deal fixes the practical problems on the ground, ensures trade flows freely within the whole of the UK, safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and returns sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland,” the PM’s office said.

A cabinet meeting would take place in the afternoon at which an update on the talks would be given, it added, stressing that ministers had received regular updates “throughout the process as the government has been pushing for a negotiated solution in the best interest of the people of Northern Ireland and intensive engagement over the weekend”.

If a final deal is agreed, Sunak and von der Leyen will hold a short joint press conference in the late afternoon.

Sunak would then head to parliament to deliver a statement on the agreement, Downing Street said.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar welcomed news of the meeting.

“I was in contact with President von der Leyen today and very much welcome news of a meeting… between von der Leyen and Rishi Sunak tomorrow,” he wrote on Twitter.

“We should acknowledge the level of engagement between the UK gov, the European Commission and the NI parties in recent months” he added.

As speculation mounted on Saturday that an agreement was imminent, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) said he believed a deal was close.

“Certainly the deal isn’t done yet,” Varadkar told broadcaster RTE. “But I do think we are inching towards conclusion.”

Ireland remains a member of the European Union. Brexit thus created a land border between the United Kingdom and the EU.

I was in contact with President @vonderleyen today and very much welcome news of a meeting in London between @vonderleyen and @RishiSunak tomorrow. We should acknowledge the level of engagement between the UK Gov, the European Commission and the NI parties in recent months

— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) February 26, 2023

Lighter touch rules

Von der Leyen had been expected to travel to Britain on Saturday and was to meet King Charles III.

UK government sources, however, confirmed to the PA news agency that that trip had been called off.

Disagreements over the protocol have stopped the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Opponents are especially vigilant against any changes that would see EU single market laws continue to apply in Northern Ireland, even if lighter-touch rules favoured by both sides were introduced.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since February last year because of the walk-out by the DUP.

It had been due to share power with pro-Ireland Sinn Fein, which became the biggest party in the assembly after elections last May.

But the DUP collapsed the power-sharing executive because of its opposition to the Brexit protocol.

The DUP has always said it wants the protocol overhauled or scrapped entirely, arguing it casts Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK and makes a united Ireland more likely.

New ‘window of opportunity’ to reach NI deal, says UK’s Sunak

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has expressed confidence of using a new “window of opportunity” to finally reach an agreement on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol after holding talks with Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin.