The United Kingdom and the European Union are inching towards concluding talks on revising post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, Ireland’s prime minister has said.
Momentum has been building for weeks towards a deal to ease checks on trade that were introduced under the Northern Ireland Protocol – the arrangements agreed to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland when the United Kingdom exited the EU in 2020.
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Politicians in British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party have been told to be in parliament on Monday, in a sign that a deal could be imminent.
“I think the talks on reforming the protocol are inching towards a conclusion. Certainly, the deal isn’t done yet, but I do think we are inching towards a conclusion,” Leo Varadkar told reporters on Saturday.
“There is the possibility of agreement in the next few days but by no means guaranteed … There’s still a gap to be closed,” Varadkar said, adding there is continuing engagement between the UK government and European Commission.
The protocol, signed by former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2020, was designed to prevent a hard border by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market.
But the treaty has incensed pro-British Unionists due to the trade barriers it created between British-administered Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Varadkar, who played a key role when the protocol was agreed upon in 2019, encouraged London, Brussels and Northern Irish politicians “to go the extra mile” to help reach an agreement, saying the benefits would be “huge”.
While an agreement would mark an end to a two-year standoff between the UK and the EU, Sunak could face a battle with pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers and pro-British Northern Irish politicians to make the deal work.
According to The Times, the current offer on the table would mean an overhauled protocol that would remove almost all checks and most paperwork on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of Northern Irish voters – who opposed Brexit – favour the idea of the protocol. However, the province’s assembly and power-sharing government have not sat for a year due to unionist opposition.
Sunak has promised the House of Commons will be able to “express its view” on his new protocol terms, which he hopes will get Northern Ireland’s largest Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to restore power-sharing in the regional parliament on the outskirts of Belfast.
The DUP has issued seven tests to win its backing for any deal, including addressing what it calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.