UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Wednesday sits down with Northern Ireland’s political leaders in Belfast to try to end a political deadlock caused by wrangling over post-Brexit trading rules.
The visit comes after the UK and European Union said they had agreed on sharing data on trade between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales, which has been hailed as a breakthrough.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, goods heading to the province from mainland Great Britain need customs checks to ensure they do not enter the European single market via member state Ireland.
But opposition to the rules from the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has left Northern Ireland without a power-sharing government, imperilling the backbone of a 1998 peace deal.
There are hopes the stand-off can be resolved before the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence over British rule and created an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Cleverly, who is due to meet the EU pointman on the issue Maros Sefcovic again next week, reiterated he preferred a “negotiated solution” to the dispute to ensure political stability in Northern Ireland.
“The current situation isn’t working. We need to address those issues with the Protocol that risk and undermine the place of (Northern Ireland) in the UK,” he added.
– ‘Positive momentum’ –
Brussels and London have negotiated for months to soothe tensions surrounding the protocol, with unionists angered at what they see as unnecessary checks on goods in the internal UK market.
They maintain that the arrangement — keeping Northern Ireland in the EU customs union and single market — casts it adrift from the three other UK nations and makes a united Ireland more likely.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson strained EU-UK relations by seeking to unilaterally overhaul the protocol through a draft law still wending its way through parliament.
On Monday, the UK and the 27-member bloc agreed on EU access to live information about which goods are moving across from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday, Irish foreign minister Micheal Martin met Sefcovic for what he called “very useful discussions” and said he was “encouraged by the new positive momentum” to resolving the dispute.
Cleverly’s visit comes ahead of a looming January 19 deadline for the resumption of the power-sharing government at Stormont.
The UK government has warned it could call fresh elections in the face of the DUP boycott but has also legislated to potentially extend the deadline to a later date.
“A solution to the problems created by the Northern Ireland Protocol is clearly desired by all across business and in government,” Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said.
“I am firmly of the belief too that what people in Northern Ireland want most is to see their elected politicians back at work,” he added.