"Tiny Bit Of Progress" In Northern Ireland Protocol Talks
There are growing signs that London and Brussels might soon reach an agreement (Alamy)
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said there had been a “tiny bit of progress” but that there was “still a way to go” in Northern Ireland Protocol talks, after leaders from the island of Ireland and Westminster met in Belfast today.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris were in Belfast on Wednesday for meetings with local party leaders to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol and negotiate a way out of the deadlock over the issue that has halted business as Stormont since May.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a post-Brexit trade arrangement designed to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland following the UK’s departure from the European Union, and since its implementation last year has proved highly contentious, particularly for Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.
But there are now growing signs that London and Brussels might soon reach an agreement with the two sides announcing on Monday a deal on data-sharing for goods crossing the Irish sea, meaning the mood going into Wednesday's talks was particularly positive.
The government is currently considering whether to extend the deadline for holding fresh Assembly elections in the region in order to get an agreement on the Protocol over the line.
Labour leader Keir Starmer also visited Belfast today alongside shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle, where they met with local party leaders at Stormont.
Irish foreign minister and tánaiste (Irish deputy prime minister) Micheál Martin described talks with Heaton-Harris on Thursday as "constructive and very substantive".
"Obviously both governments remain very focused on the importance of and the need to get the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement restored particularly the assembly and the executive and of course strand two the north-south bodies," he said.
"I welcome the progress that has been made as evidenced by the statement earlier in the week in terms of the sharing of data."
The talks were largely overshadowed by accusations that the government had excluded Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. The government defended the move arguing that they needed first to meet with ministers from the Irish government, and that deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, the party's leader in Northern Ireland, had been invited.
"I'm much more focused on the big ticket items," Heaton-Harris told the BBC on Thursday.
"I did extend an invite to Mary Lou McDonald for dinner, but yesterday was one of those things. We're moving forward."
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