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Keir Starmer Set To Visit Northern Ireland After Breakthrough In Brexit Protocol Talks

Labour leader Keir Starmer at the Stormont buildings in Belfast (Alamy)

5 min read

Labour leader Keir Starmer will visit Northern Ireland in the coming days after UK and European Union negotiators took a step towards finding a potential solution for the post-Brexit impasse, PoliticsHome understands.

Starmer, Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Kyle and Labour's leader in the Lords Baroness Angela Smith are expected to meet with party leaders in the Stormont as the government prepares to decide whether to extend the deadline for holding fresh Assembly elections in the region.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of Brexit talks as a way of avoiding a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. It has bedevilled UK-EU relations since it was implemented at the start of last year, with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party blocking the formation of a government in Belfast in protest against the treaty. There are now growing signs of London and Brussels finding a resolution, however, with the two sides announcing a deal on an element of the protocol on Monday.

The Labour leader will visit in a week which may go down as a significant point in efforts to end the long-running dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol and restore the region's government.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris will head to Belfast on Wednesday for meetings with the party leaders there, while the Republic of Ireland's Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is also expected to visit Northern Ireland. 

On Monday, UK and EU negotiators announced they had reached a deal on the subject of data sharing, which is seen as crucial to paving the way for agreements on thornier elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol talks.

In a joint statement, Cleverly and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said the data-sharing agreement was a "critical prerequisite" to building trust between the two sides, and created a "new basis" for negotiations to continue. 

The deal will see the Treasury provide EU officials with live information on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and is seen as key to unlocking a deal on the trickier issue of customs checks.

Cleverly and Sefcovic are due to meet again on Monday as both sides hope to reach an overall deal prior to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April, when US President Joe Biden is expected to pay a much-anticipated visit to the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Sources on both sides say the atmosphere between the UK and EU has improved markedly in recent weeks after fractious periods during the premiership of ex-prime minister Boris Johnson.

That the EU and UK coordinated to put out a joint statement on Monday, plus the fact that Sefcovic, Cleverly and their teams met on the first day back after the Christmas recess, is seen as a reflections of the warmer mood towards the issue since Rishi Sunak entered No 10 in October.

A Brussels source said yesterday's meeting between the pair "was a meeting by friends, which is something we haven't had in a long time".

However, the source said the agreement on data dealt with "low hanging fruit" and that negotiators had to resolve more contentious subjects – namely, checks on agri-food goods crossing the Irish Sea and the role of the European Court of Justice – in order to strike an overall agreement.

There is a growing expectation that Chris Heaton Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will next week extend the deadline for fresh Assembly elections in the region in order to create more time for UK and EU negotiators to reach a deal on the post-Brexit treaty.

As things stand, voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls at 2 March at the latest, but Heaton Harris has the option to use a statutory instrument to postpone that date to 13 April.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Executive since early last year over the DUP's ongoing opposition to the protocol, which it says has undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK. 

A DUP source warned that the Sunak government and European Commission were showing signs of focusing too much on what is acceptable to them and ignoring what the party led by Jeffrey Donaldson is asking for.

"A deal will probably be better than what we have now, but will it be enough? A green lane won’t be enough to get the DUP back into government," they said. 

"These negotiations risk being too focused on the technical fixes and not the overarching problem that unionists believe the constitutional status of Northern Ireland has been altered."

As well as a dramatic reduction in the number of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the DUP is calling for the role of ECJ to be fundamentally scaled back. The involvement of European judges in the policing of the protocol is expected to be one of – if not the most – intractable issues in the negotiations.

In the event of a deal being reached, DUP figures are bracing themselves for the UK government to publicly pile pressure on the party to re-enter Stormont by pointing to the cost of living crisis, NHS pressures and other issues that are impacting people in the region.

Speaking earlier today, a No 10 spokesperson said: "We've been clear that progress has been made on data sharing but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that key issues with the protocol still remain.

"Progress is needed to find solutions to the problems around the movement of goods, tax and state aid, goods regulations, and governance in Northern Ireland. 

"What happens now is that UK and EU technical teams work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in those different areas.”

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