British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was travelling to Northern Ireland on Thursday evening to sound out whether its political parties back his plans to improve the post-Brexit trading arrangements for the province, Britain’s government said.
Officials from Britain and the European Union have been in intense talks on the post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade and customs deal known as the protocol, with expectations growing that new terms could be announced next week.
The Northern Ireland protocol was agreed as part of Britain’s departure from the European Union. But it soon sparked anger among unionists about the imposition of checks on some goods arriving from the rest of the United Kingdom, which Sunak is now trying to solve.
“Whilst talks with the EU are ongoing, ministers continue to engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market,” a spokesperson for Sunak’s office said.
“The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are travelling to Northern Ireland this evening to speak to political parties as part of this engagement process,” the spokesperson added.
Separately, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was due in Brussels on Friday to meet European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, who oversees EU relations with Britain, a Commission spokesperson said.
EU ambassadors will then convene for a “restricted” meeting, an EU diplomat said. The format typically means only the ambassadors attend along with representatives from the Commission and the European Council.
One EU diplomat said it appeared a deal was close but not complete and that the meeting wouldprepare for a possible rapid conclusion.
SHROUDED IN SECRECY
The talks so far have been shrouded in secrecy with some of the main players complaining that they have not seen any detail on the possible fixes to issues including the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland.
In Belfast, Sunak was expected to meet with the main political parties early on Friday. Officials and security had gathered at a hotel on the outskirts of the city earlier on Thursday.
In a bid to reduce checks at Northern Ireland ports, the European Commission has said it was open to the idea of “express lanes” to separate goods bound only for Northern Ireland from products heading into Ireland or elsewhere in the EU.
But some lawmakers in Sunak’s Conservative Party and in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) want more comprehensive changes, saying they will only accept a deal if it limits the role of the ECJ, a top EU court, in Northern Ireland. That is a red line for Brussels, which insists on the ECJ being the ultimate arbiter of disputes relating to its single market.
Support from the largest pro-British party, the DUP, is likely to be crucial after it boycotted Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament over the protocol. A senior member of the DUP said on Thursday they had not seen the details.
Business leaders have said it is vital to consult Northern Ireland and not present a finished deal negotiated behind closed doors.
Sunak is also due in Munich on Saturday, where he could meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.