Rishi Sunak Tells Northern Irish Parties A Protocol Deal Is Close, But Not Done
Rishi Sunak met with Northern Ireland leaders in Belfast on Friday (alamy)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has told party leaders in Stormont that a deal with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol is close, but not completed.
Sunak had meetings with politicians from Northern Ireland's parties in Belfast on Friday morning as UK and EU negotiators near an agreement on the post-Brexit treaty for the region.
He was joined by Chris Heaton Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Mary Lou McDonald, President of the region's largest party Sinn Fein, said "very, very significant progress has been made" in negotiations following her meeting with Sunak this morning.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said "progress has been made across a range of areas" but "further work is required" in some areas of the talks.
The DUP's approval of any deal with the EU will be key to Northern Ireland's power-sharing government being restored after it was collapsed by Donaldson's party early last year over its opposition to the treaty.
Donaldson met with Sunak on Thursday night and has been talking to officials about the negotiations over the last 48 hours, he told reporters following his party's meeting with the Prime Minister.
"Clearly this is a big moment," the DUP leader said.
"The next generation of Northern Ireland and its people requires us all collectively to use our best efforts – particularly the Prime Minister and the European Commission president – to get these issues resolved and to get to a place where the political institutions can be restored."
The DUP's meeting with Sunak significantly overran the 15 minutes that had been pencilled in, in a sign that the UK's negotiations with the EU are at a key moment.
One member of the Northern Irish Assembly who sat down with Sunak this morning said that while the Prime Minister disclosed "bugger all" about the details of the negotiations, they came away from the meeting with the impression that a deal between the UK and Brussels was close.
Sunak will travel to a security conference in Munich on Saturday where he is expected to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol talks with Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President.
No 10 insists negotiations are ongoing and that no deal has been done.
However, the two sides have made significant progress on the thorny issues of customs checks and the European Court of Justice in recent weeks, with an announcement of a deal expected as soon as next week.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of Brexit negotiations as a way of avoiding a controversial hard border on the island of Ireland, and came into effect early last year.
It did so by creating new barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea, however, which both the UK government and EU are committed to reducing through talks.
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