Rishi Sunak refuses to ‘raise expectations’ on finding swift solution to NI protocol impasse

UK prime minister says he is working ‘flat out’ to try to restore power-sharing at Stormont

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak with welder Brian Walsh as he visited the Harland & Wolff shipyard and factory in Belfast on Friday. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has played down the prospect of a swift resolution to talks over the Northern Ireland protocol.

“I don’t want to raise expectations of an imminent breakthrough,” he said in Belfast on Friday, adding that he was “very committed” to finding a resolution and wanted to do so “as soon as practically possible”.

He also said he was working “flat out” to see power-sharing restored at Stormont because the people of Northern Ireland “need and deserve” a functioning Assembly and Executive.

Mr Sunak also pledged that there would be an announcement “very soon” on the delivery of a £600 energy support payment – which people elsewhere in the UK have already begun receiving – and that the money “will be delivered this winter”.

READ MORE
Rishi Sunak says he is hopeful of reaching a resolution with the EU on changing post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland. Video: Reuters

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since the May elections, when the DUP refused to re-enter the power-sharing institutions until issues around the post-Brexit protocol, which it opposes, are resolved to its satisfaction. The deadline for the restoration of the Assembly has been pushed back by the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris until January 19th.

Mr Sunak met representatives of Northern Ireland’s five largest political parties on Thursday night and on Friday morning visited the Harland and Woolf shipyard in Belfast. It was his first visit to Northern Ireland since becoming prime minister.

‘Obstacle’

Speaking following their meeting with Mr Sunak, the Sinn Féin vice president and the North’s first minister designate Michelle O’Neill said she told him “that what we need to see is a deal on the protocol, we need to find an agreed way forward, to work with the EU and get that done speedily because that is the obstacle as we speak in terms of restoring the Executive”.

She said she emphasised to the prime minister that Northern Ireland had been left in a “political limbo” and the time created by the extension of the deadline had to be used constructively.

“We’ve been here for far too long in this space without an Executive,” she said. “He would be moving at pace but wasn’t more definitive than that, but we need more than warm words and good mood music, we need actually a deal to be struck.”

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said it appeared there was likely to be an “intensification at the political level” of the talks around the protocol.

“The outcome must restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market,” he said. “I think that is the space that the prime minister is in, I think that is what the prime minister wants to achieve from this negotiation.”

Place in the union

Asked by reporters about the status of the talks between the UK and EU, Mr Sunak said he was “not going to give a running commentary on the negotiations” as it would not be appropriate.

“What is of paramount importance to me is protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the union,” he added. “The protocol, clearly there are areas of that which threaten that. I want to resolve those and I want to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the union.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she had used her meeting with Mr Sunak to urge the UK government to “step up” and help solve the political crisis.

“We don’t agree with the stand-off at Stormont but we’re not going to see any progress towards having an Assembly restored until the issues around the protocol have been resolved,” she said. “That isn’t something that any of us, Jeffrey Donaldson included, have any influence over whatsoever, that is something that only the prime minister and the EU can resolve.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times