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UK And EU Doubt A Northern Ireland Protocol Deal Is Imminent, Despite Improved Mood

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at Cop27 (Alamy)

5 min read

UK and European Union sources have sought to play down the prospect of an imminent deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol despite relations between the two sides having improved significantly.

Since Rishi Sunak was appointed as prime minister last month, there have been suggestions the the UK government and the EU might be on the cusp of agreeing changes to contentious post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland after many months of unsuccessful negotiations.

Hopes of a deal have been boosted by figures on both sides, who have noted the atmosphere has become much more positive in recent weeks following significant tension over the treaty, underscored by hardline rhetoric from former Brexit negotiators Liz Truss and Lord Frost.

The UK move to table the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has been a major row between the two sides. The legislation, introduced by former prime minister Boris Johnson, would give ministers the power to overhaul the treaty without the approval of the EU. While Sunak is committed to delivering the bill if talks with the EU fail, it still has a long way to before making it through parliament, and there are doubts within the DUP over whether the new government is prepared to put it into law.

But sources in London and Brussels have told PoliticsHome there is still a long way to go before UK and EU negotiators reach a deal on the substance of their negotiations. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by former-prime minister Johnson during Brexit talks as a way of avoiding a controversial hard border on the island of Ireland.

However, it did so by creating barriers to trade in the Irish Sea, which unionists like the Democratic Unionist Party say have undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK. As a result, the DUP is blocking the formation of an Executive in Belfast over its opposition to the treaty, and says it will not end its protest until concerns over post-Brexit trade are dealt with. 

The UK government wants the number of checks that are carried out on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain to be dramatically reduced, arguing that the current regime is overzealous. It is also demanding that the European Court of Justice no longer has jurisdiction over the post-Brexit treaty.

A UK source insisted the government had little room to compromise on the role of the ECJ because neither the DUP nor Eurosceptic Conservative MPs would accept its continued supremacy.

The government is pushing for an arrangement that is similar to what was agreed as part the UK's post-Brexit trade deal with the EU – in which an independent arbitration panel, with equal members nominated by London and Brussels, resolves disputes that arise between the two sides. 

Meanwhile, a Brussels source indicated both sides are "still very far apart" on the technical detail of a deal. 

Speaking at the European Security Committee on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also said there were still "big gaps" in the talks, despite there being a "good mood" between the two sides. 

“I don’t want people to be defeatist, but equally I don’t want people to run away with the idea that we are just on the cusp of some amazing breakthrough that was there all the time if only we’d kind of looked a little bit harder," he said.

"There are some real challenges that need to be overcome.”

Cleverly suggested that the strength of DUP feeling means that the government has little room to compromise in talks with Brussels if it wants to get Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, which has been out of action since February, back up-and-running. 

"I'm not going to say yes to proposals that I don't think would have cross-community support in Northern Ireland. There is literally no point in me saying yes to things that are unacceptable to all the communities across Northern Ireland because they just won't stick."

A source on the UK side said DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson is being urged by senior figures like the party's Westminster MP Sammy Wilson to maintain a hard line over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

While he was chancellor in Johnson's government, Sunak urged the then-prime minister to seek a negotiated settlement with the EU, rather than take contentious unilateral action, arguing that possible trade retaliation from Brussels would do significant damage to the UK economy.

With the country already in recession and facing its biggest drop in living standards on record, Sunak is now thought to be just as keen to avoid a confrontation with Brussels.

"Sunak really doesn't want a trade war," said a government source.

While the two sides are clearly keen to manage expectations, they know they are under huge pressure to do a deal early next year ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.

US president Joe Biden is set to visit Northern Ireland to mark the occasion, and his regime is expected to step up its efforts to push the UK and EU into reaching an agreement before that key date. 

Belfast's Queen's University, where former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is chancellor, is hosting a major conference as part of the anniversary celebrations. Her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, played an important role in facilitating the 1998 peace deal. 

Under plans announced by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris last week, the region will have fresh Assembly elections in either March or April 2023 in order to restore the Executive – a timeline which puts the government and EU under more pressure to strike a deal early next year.

The government had legislated to hold a vote before Christmas but was forced to ditch the plan after widespread opposition from Stormont's political parties and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland.

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