Intensive negotiations already under way between EU and UK on protocol

DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson positive after Varadkar meeting, noting FG leader’s ‘better understanding’ of North’s ‘difficulties’

Intensive negotiations between the British Government and the EU on reaching a new agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol are already under way, according to sources close to the process, amid speculation that the negotiating “tunnel” - the final phase of the process - could begin as early as next week.

EU sources played down the “tunnel” speculation, and said that the talks were already at an intensive stage. But it is understood that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will meet EU negotiator Maroš Šefčovič again on Monday in what may be a significant milestone in the efforts to reach an agreement, signalling that the negotiations are reaching a critical stage.

Meanwhile, both the British and Irish Governments are continuing efforts to reach out to unionists in advance of any deal in the hope that they will accept a lighter-touch application of the protocol and re-enter the powersharing institutions at Stormont.

Speaking in Belfast on Thursday where he met with party leaders, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it is “not possible” to put a time frame on a potential deal between the EU and UK over the protocol.


Leo Varadkar also said he could not say whether agreement might be reached in time for the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement in April.

However, he said he was “hopeful it would be possible to come to an agreement on the protocol that will allow it to work more effectively [and] hopefully become more acceptable more broadly across society here and will then allow the institutions to be re-established”.

Mr Varadkar also said that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had indicated to him in a telephone conversation on Wednesday evening that negotiators were not in the “tunnel” phase of the talks yet, but that they needed “time and space and confidentiality” to come to an agreement.

‘Better understanding’

The Taoiseach, UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Tánaiste Micheál Martin all held meetings in Northern Ireland on Thursday as part of efforts to resolve the dispute over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Sir Keir said he believed there was a “window of opportunity” which could see agreement over the protocol.

Mr Varadkar and Sir Keir had separate meetings with the main Stormont parties to discuss the deadlock.

The Taoiseach has been regarded as a controversial figure by unionists, but DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson struck a positive note following their meeting, saying Mr Varadkar now had a “better understanding” of the “difficulties the protocol is creating for Northern Ireland”.

He said it was “good that the Irish Government now recognises the need now to find a solution that will help to repair those relationships”.

Northern Ireland is still without a functioning Assembly or Executive after the DUP refused to re-enter the powersharing government following elections in May as part of its protest against the protocol.

UK foreign secretary James Cleverly, in the North on Wednesday, similarly declined to give a timeline for a resolution to the talks. “Obviously we want to do it as quickly as we can, but we’re not setting any artificial deadlines … of course we are also working intensively to get a resolution.”

The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and foreign secretary were among several high-profile politicians in the North this week in an attempt to end the political impasse at Stormont.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times