EU and UK announce progress in push for Northern Ireland protocol deal

Agreement on way forward for data access provides ‘new basis’ for talks, both sides say

The European Union and the United Kingdom have announced an agreement on a way forward for customs data access that provides “a new basis” for future talks, amid a fresh push for a resolution of the contested Northern Ireland Protocol.

Officials on both sides have in mind the coming 25 year anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement in April, and are working to set the conditions for the reestablishment of powersharing in the Stormont Assembly by that date if possible.

A more positive tone has taken hold in EU and UK statements about the issue since a government was formed by British prime minister Rishi Sunak, who is seen as more pragmatic than his more hardline predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.

Reflecting this, the EU and UK released a joint statement rather than two separate ones on Monday after British foreign minister James Cleverly and Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris met the European Commission vice president and Brexit point man Maroš Šefčovič in London - a practice that broke down at times as talks stalled in recent years.

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“They took stock of work to find joint solutions to the concerns raised by businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. The meeting was cordial and constructive,” the joint statement read.

“They agreed that while a range of critical issues need to be resolved to find a way forward, an agreement was reached today on the way forward regarding the specific question of the EU’s access to UK IT systems.”

The issue of the EU’s ability to access real time data on the goods moving into Northern Ireland from Britain is a longstanding point of contention between the two sides regarding the post-Brexit arrangements designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

This oversight of incoming goods and therefore potential risks to the Single Market was considered essential to secure backing for the protocol from the EU member states that are more worried about potential risks from the UK, such as animal diseases. A delay in establishing this access to data was a frustration of the EU side for some time.

The British side is of the view that it simply took time to establish, and has pushed the EU for weeks to recognise that, from their point of view, the matter is resolved as it is now up and running.

The joint statement said that resolving the data issue was “a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance, and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions.”

Mr Cleverly, Mr Heaton-Harris and Mr Šefčovič are to speak again on January 16th to “take stock of progress”, the statement read, saying that the “EU and UK technical teams will work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding”.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin will be in Brussels on Tuesday for a meeting with Mr Šefčovič, part of a push to find a resolution on the protocol ahead of a January 19th deadline to call new Stormont elections.

Northern Ireland has lacked a ruling executive since elections were held last May, with the Democratic Unionist Party insisting its concerns over the Protocol must be addressed in order for it to re-enter the powersharing institutions established as a key part of the Belfast Agreement that brought an end to decades of conflict in 1998.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times