There is a narrow opportunity to find a deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol in the next month or two, according to people close to the administrations.
A deadline of September 15th looms for the British government to respond to the European Commission’s infringement proceedings, taken this summer over noncompliance with the Protocol deal that set out Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements.
This is a potential trigger for a fresh escalation of tensions between the UK and EU, because Britain’s response will likely be followed by the Commission referring the case to the European Court of Justice, a step further in the infringement process and towards the potential imposition of fines on Britain.
But the Commission has prepared an “off-ramp” option for Britain that would cause the ECJ process to slow down, and give talks a chance to produce an agreement, The Irish Times understands.
There is a corresponding possibility for the administration of the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss to also slow the progress of the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through the House of Lords, to give fresh talks a chance.
The positions of officials on both sides were described as mirroring each other in terms of the prospects to try for a deal.
But all depends on the outcome of forthcoming conversations between the top leaders, with Ms Truss expected to speak to both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the coming days.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told The Irish Times that over the summer both he and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were consulted by the then-Minister of State for Northern Ireland Conor Burns in a bid to draw on their experience in brokering the Good Friday Agreement to try to find a deal.
“We were trying to see where we could get the sides together,” Mr Ahern said. “I was trying to narrow down just where are the lines are. It’s very clear, if you want it to be clear.”
Mr Ahern spoke on the sidelines of a round-table of Stormont MLAs and MEPs in the European Parliament organised by Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews, which brought politicians from rival parties including the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin together to talk about the Protocol issue.
Senior EU, UK, and Irish officials addressed the group and a dinner was held with senior figures including the European Commission Vice President and Protocol point-man Maroš Šefčovič to try to build ties and common ground.
In an address to the round-table, Mr Ahern said it was not “rocket science” to get a deal and that there was a window of opportunity to reach one with the new British administration in the next one to two months.
He acknowledged the concerns of the DUP about an Irish Sea border as “valid” and said they should be addressed.
“It’s a fairly clear-cut issue: how can we get records of the movement of goods in a technological way, that satisfies everybody, without it becoming that it’s a ‘border’. And what items do they [the EU] need records of — that’s what the issue is,” he said.
For goods that are only moving from one part of the UK to another, “there shouldn’t be any checks, or at least the very minimum. For other items, there probably has to be checks,” Mr Ahern said. “I agree with the position that those should be done in some technological fashion.”
He warned of the risk that Northern Ireland could become dragged into other disputes between the EU and UK government, over unrelated issues such as financial regulation, where there are potential friction points.
“I do worry if Northern Ireland is caught up in other issues,” he warned. “I don’t want Northern Ireland to be part of the blame game.”