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UK And EU To Intensify Northern Ireland Protocol Talks In A Bid For February Deal

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Downing Street (Alamy)

4 min read

The UK and European Union are set to intensify negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol as they try to reach an agreement in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this spring.

In a joint statement on Monday afternoon, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission Vice-President said they had agreed that their teams should continue with "scoping work" to find a deal on how to manage post-Brexit trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

While the reserved statement did not offer the major breakthrough on the framework of a deal some had expected, PoliticsHome understands that UK and EU officials are now preparing to enter several weeks of intense negotiations and that there is a growing hope of reaching an agreement on the contentious post-Brexit treaty in early to mid February.

UK officials are currently in Brussels where they are negotiating potential changes to the treaty with counterparts from the European Commission, according to a source familiar with talks.

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.

Cleverly's virtual meeting with Sefcovic on Monday, which was also attended by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris, followed talks between officials over the weekend after a significant breakthrough was made on the subject of data sharing early last week.

Figures on both sides say the atmosphere has improved markedly in recent weeks after highly fractious periods during the premiership of former prime minister Boris Johnson, when then-foreign secretary Liz Truss and former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost had led talks. Following last week's agreement on data, a Brussels source said Sefcovic's in-person meeting with Cleverly "was a meeting by friends, which is something we haven't had in a long time".

Both sides are keen to resolve the long-running dispute before the Good Friday peace deal anniversary on 10 April. Following today's meeting, one Whitehall source said reaching an agreement with Brussels in the first half of February would give UK and EU time to get stakeholders including the DUP on board with the deal before then, which in turn would lead to the restoration of Northern Ireland's institutions.

Heaton Harris will this week confirm whether ministers will once again extend the deadline for fresh Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. 

As things stand, voters in the region will go to the polls at 2 March at the latest, but the secretary of state has the option to use a statutory instrument to postpone that date to 13 April.

PoliticsHome understands that Heaton Harris, who will travel to Dublin on Thursday for a meeting of the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, is likely to extend the deadline in order to create more time for talks over the protocol, though no final decision had been made at the time of writing.

The biggest obstacle to the DUP's support for any deal is likely to be the role of the European Court of Justice. Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned last week that the DUP would not support any deal that did not restore Northern Ireland’s "constitutional" place in the UK. 

Under the current treaty, EU law applies in Northern Ireland by virtue of the region's place in the single market, and disputes arising from the protocol are determined by the European judges. Those familiar with negotiations say it will be the trickiest issue to resolve.

A No 10 spokesperson said on Monday: "Certainly there are still significant gaps remaining and discussions will continue to look at what can be done on those areas. Obviously it’s welcome that the talks continue and that we have made some progress in recent weeks."

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