The Irish and British governments and the EU will renew efforts this week to reach a fresh agreement on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol in advance of a January 19th deadline to call new Stormont elections.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin will speak with the leaders of the Northern parties by telephone today (Monday) before flying to Brussels where he will brief senior diplomats during his first trip to the EU capital since taking on the portfolio before Christmas. He is expected to travel to Belfast for in-person meetings later this week.
The European Commission’s chief negotiator Maroš Šefčovič is due to meet British foreign secretary James Cleverly today.
Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is due to convene a meeting of the Northern parties on Wednesday. He has said he will call a fresh round of Assembly elections on January 19th if Northern Ireland’s powersharing institutions remain out of operation.
The North has been without a devolved government since May’s election, when the DUP refused to re-enter the powersharing institutions. It insists it will not return to government until its concerns over the post-Brexit protocol are addressed.
The protocol, designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland, requires Northern Ireland to observe EU single market rules, meaning that checks are carried out on certain goods arriving from Britain. The DUP says this undermines Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.
Under the rules laid down in the Belfast Agreement in 1998, the institutions need the support of the largest unionist and nationalist parties to work. As the largest unionist party the DUP effectively holds a veto over the re-establishment of the powersharing administration and the Assembly.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is also due to travel to Belfast for meetings with the Stormont parties before next week’s deadline expires, officials said.
However, there is a growing expectation that the election deadline could be extended again if there is progress in the protocol negotiations. All sides believe there is a window of opportunity in the coming weeks to conclude a deal which would see the application of the protocol rules relaxed, greatly reducing the checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
If Mr Heaton-Harris, who has already postponed calling the election once, wishes to implement a further postponement in the hope of creating space for further talks he can sign a statutory instrument to that effect, British sources confirmed.
In the weeks before Christmas there were signs from London and Brussels that the two sides would make a fresh effort to reach a new agreement on the protocol. Talks between officials from both sides are ongoing.