Northern Ireland secretary to meet Coveney for talks in Dublin

Talks to take place amid continuing uncertainty at Stormont and turmoil in DUP

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis is to visit Dublin on Wednesday for talks with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis is to visit Dublin on Wednesday for talks with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

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Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis is to visit Dublin on Wednesday for talks with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney amid continuing uncertainty at Stormont and turmoil in the DUP.

The meeting follows weeks of high-level contact between officials in Dublin, London and Belfast which began following the recent spate of rioting in mostly loyalist areas and continuing unionist objections to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol.

DUP opposition to the protocol, which imposes some barriers on trade between the North and the rest of the UK, was one of the chief factors in the challenge to Arlene Foster, who announced last week that she would stand down as DUP leader and First Minister.

Ms Foster first accepted the protocol, but more recently campaigned against it. Unionists want the protocol torn up, but neither the British government nor the European Union, who jointly agreed the protocol, say this is possible.

The British government is instead concentrating its efforts on ensuring that the protocol is applied with as little friction as possible – a stance that has led to conflict with the EU.

The Government is keen to help with de-escalating tensions in the North, but will not agree to undermine EU requirements to protect the single market.

It has said that it wants to find “pragmatic” solutions to the issue of UK goods coming into the North and having access to the EU through the open border with the Republic.

Upbeat assessment

Mr Coveney last week gave an upbeat assessment of the possibility for compromise on the protocol, telling an Oireachtas committee that discussions between the EU commissioner in charge of post-Brexit negotiations, Maros Sefcovic, and his British counterpart, David Frost, were progressing well.

Dublin is also keen to hold an intergovernmental conference with British ministers in the coming months. Downing Street recently rebuffed overtures from Dublin about reconvening the conference, which is part of the Belfast Agreement but has not met since Boris Johnson became prime minister.

However, Mr Coveney has indicated that a meeting could take place in the “coming weeks or months”.

Meanwhile, media reports in the North suggest that minister for agriculture Edwin Poots is likely to face competition from MP Jeffrey Donaldson to succeed Ms Foster as DUP leader. If so, it would be the first leadership contest in the party’s 50-year history.

The Poots camp has claimed a majority of DUP MPs and MLAs have pledged their support for his candidacy, but sources close to Mr Donaldson disputed this. One source told the Press Association that Donaldson had received a significant number of endorsements.

It was also reported that if successful in becoming DUP leader, Mr Poots would not assume the role of first minister, but rather appoint a party colleague while he focused on leading and rebuilding the party.

“Edwin will split the roles of leader of the party and first minister,” a DUP spokesman told Sunday Life.

Ms Foster would not be drawn on who she would support to be her successor, saying she would “wait and see who the choice is, when the candidates come forward, and then I’ll make my decision”.

The North’s justice minister Naomi Long told the BBC’s Sunday Politics show that the heave against Ms Foster had been characterised by “scheming”, “misogyny” and “callousness”.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken also said he “felt very uncomfortable” about the manner in which Ms Foster was ousted. He said he had expressed his “sympathies at the way it was done” to the First Minister.

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