Northern Ireland protocol talks: New optimism on reaching agreement before Stormont election deadline

EU-UK breakthrough on sharing of trade data among developments that suggest pathway can be found, Irish official says

The Government is optimistic of meaningful progress being made this week to resolve the deadlock over the Northern Ireland protocol following a significant breakthrough between the European Union and the United Kingdom on customs data.

The European Commission’s chief negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič and British foreign secretary James Cleverly announced an agreement on Monday which will allow the EU access to real-time data on goods moving from the UK into Northern Ireland. Considered a fundamental condition for giving Northern Ireland access to the single market, Britain’s failure to give the EU access to these IT systems has been an ongoing bone of contention between both sides.

In advance of a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday between Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and Mr Šefčovič, a senior Government source expressed the view that the agreement on customs data, in addition to increased engagement between all sides in recent weeks, were positive signs of meaningful progress.

“There is momentum and a clear pathway to get progress and find agreement,” said the source, who spoke on the basis of anonymity.

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The EU, and the Irish and British governments, are working towards reaching an agreement on the operation of the protocol in advance of January 19th, the deadline for calling fresh Stormont Assembly elections if powersharing has not been restored. There is also a desire within both governments for the issue to be resolved in advance of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th.

Mr Martin on Monday spoke by telephone to Northern party leaders for the first time in his new role as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The conversations were described as “productive” and are part of an intensive series of engagements involving senior Irish Government Ministers as part of the efforts to find a solution by January 19th. Mr Martin will meet Chris Heaton-Harris in Hillsborough on Thursday, the day after the Northern Secretary convenes a meeting of Northern parties. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is also due to travel to Belfast to meet Northern party leaders in advance of next week’s deadline.

The Tánaiste is expected to brief Mr Šefčovič on his conversations with Northern leaders, as well as receiving an assessment of progress in negotiations on this long-running issue.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his conversation with Mr Martin was “useful” but expressed the party’s ongoing opposition to the post-Brexit trade deal.

First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin tweeted that she’d had a “good call” with Mr Martin.

“We share a common commitment on the way forward to get a negotiated outcome on the Protocol and an immediate restoration of powersharing,” she wrote.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he discussed the “urgent need” to restore Stormont with Mr Martin. Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said that “time was of the essence” in restoring devolution.

The North has been without a government since May’s election, when the DUP refused to re-enter the powersharing institutions. The protocol is designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland and requires that checks are carried out on certain goods arriving from Britain.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times