A report suggesting that Britain and the European Union have struck a customs deal that could help resolving the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol is being treated with caution in Government Buildings.
In the Dáil on Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar denied a deal had been done, despite reports to the contrary.
“I can confirm that, notwithstanding newspaper reports, that no deal has yet been done between the EU and the UK,” Mr Varadkar said.
The Taoiseach was responding to Fianna Fáil TD Sean Haughey who said there had been reports in the London Times that a deal had been struck between the EU and UK but subsequent reports from RTÉ indicated that EU sources were denying this.
According to Government sources intensive talks between London and Brussels are ongoing. The matters being discussed are said to be complex and will require detailed and sustainable solutions.
The talks are said to be taking place in an improved atmosphere but as things stand there is no expectation of an imminent deal.
The Times newspaper reported on Tuesday night that a customs deal has been struck.
The Irish Times understands that the report is being treated with caution given that much of its sourcing appears to be from the UK side.
According to The Times, the EU has accepted a plan that would avoid routine checks on goods going into Northern Ireland.
However, a Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) source indicated that the claim a deal had been struck did not reflect the reality of the current state of the talks.
The FCDO suggested the newspaper’s report was speculative, saying officials were engaged in “intensive scoping talks” with Brussels and declining to pre-empt the discussions.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU in 2019 as a way to unlock the logjam over securing a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Designed as a means to keep the Irish land border free-flowing, it moved regulatory and customs checks on goods to the Irish Sea, creating economic barriers on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The Times reported that the customs deal is largely based on the Government’s proposals for a red and green lanes system – with the green lane for goods from Great Britain which are staying in the region and the red lane to check and control products going on to the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU.
A separate agreement would be negotiated on exports of meat and live animals to Northern Ireland, with the UK agreeing to maintain EU veterinary standards on goods destined for the province.
Citing government sources, The Times also reported that Brussels has made concessions of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a key sticking point in UK-EU talks.
For the first time, it recognised that the ECJ could rule on Northern Ireland issues only if a case was referred by courts there, the newspaper said.
In response, the FCDO said: “Our priority is protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and preserving political stability in Northern Ireland and the UK internal market.
“Any solution on the Protocol must address the range of issues on the ground in Northern Ireland.
“We are currently engaging in intensive scoping talks with the EU to find solutions to these problems.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman on Monday also suggested no deal had been struck and that “intensive scoping” was under way.
The Times reported that while the customs element was apparently “finalised”, the role of the ECJ and etails of the veterinary arrangements were not.
Both sides are keen to reach an agreement to break the logjam over the contentious trading arrangements before April’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s historic Good Friday peace agreement.
Many unionists in Northern Ireland are vehemently opposed to arrangements they claim have weakened the region’s place within the union.
The devolved powersharing institutions at Stormont collapsed last year after the DUP withdrew co-operation as part of its protest against the protocol.
The DUP MP Ian Paisley dismissed the reports as “speculation” and “kite-flying” and re-emphasised his party’s position that the Northern Ireland protocol “must be replaced by arrangements that restore NI’s place in the UK internal market and our constitutional position must be respected”. - additional reporting PA