Rishi Sunak in Brexit push as he holds talks with Northern Ireland leaders

Rishi Sunak in Brexit push as he holds talks with Northern Ireland leaders

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes to end the deadlock over trade with Europe as holds talks with political leaders in Northern Ireland to gain support for his Brexit deal.

Mr Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will meet politicians near Belfast amid growing speculation over a deal within days on the post-Brexit trading arrangement. Mr Sunak is then expected to travel to the Munich Security Conference where he would hope to hold talks with French and German leaders, plus the European Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen.

The flurry of diplomacy fuelled expectations that a deal to improve the post-Brexit trading arrangements for the province could be finalised within days.

Newspaper reports suggest the Prime Minister could brief his cabinet on the deal and announce it in parliament on Tuesday.

In another apparent sign of progress, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will travel to Brussels for a meeting with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.

But Irish premier Micheal Martin said he believes there is a “distance to go yet” before a deal between the UK and the EU is over the line.

The UK and the EU have been embroiled in negotiations over the workings of the protocol, agreed to ensure the free movement of goods across the Irish land border after Brexit.

The protocol is deeply unpopular with unionists and the Democratic Unionist Party has collapsed the power-sharing institutions at Stormont in protest at the arrangements.

Mr Sunak faces an uphill task to bring the DUP on board.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said on Friday that he wanted to hear what steps any deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol had taken to remove the “automatic application of EU law”. He said it was fundamental that Northern Ireland was not separated legally from the rest of the UK.

Asked on the BBC how keen he is to find a way through and find a way back into power-sharing, and if the DUP is in a no or a “let’s find a way through this” mode, he said: “We are very much in a let’s find a way through this mode, because we want to have the power-sharing arrangements restored in Northern Ireland.

“We want to be in a problem-solving mode, but the problem is not caused by us. The problem is caused by the application of the protocol … parts of which we believe are unnecessary and the government has said should be changed.”

A number 10 spokeswoman confirmed that the Prime Minister will meet Northern Ireland parties as part of the “engagement process”.

She added: “Whilst talks with the EU are ongoing, ministers continue to engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.”

The Foreign Office also confirmed Mr Cleverly’s Brussels meeting with Mr Sefcovic, saying it was part of “ongoing engagement and constructive dialogue with the EU to find practical solutions that work for the people of Northern Ireland”.

Mr Martin said he believed the UK government wanted a consultation with the Northern Ireland parties on the negotiations.

He told RTE: “I think there is a distance to go yet. I don’t understate the challenges, but clearly the negotiations have been serious and substantive and trust has built up between the EU team and the UK team, but I think there is some time to go yet.”

Senior figures in the DUP and the European Research Group of the Tory party have warned that any deal must remove the oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland as well as dealing with trading difficulties.

While it is understood the EU and the UK are close to signing off a deal that would reduce protocol red tape on the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, there is no expectation that Brussels is willing to agree to end the application of EU law in the region.

The EU says a fundamental plank of the protocol ― namely that Northern Ireland traders can sell freely into the European single market ― is dependent on the operation of EU rules in the region.

Deputy chairman of the ERG David Jones tweeted on Thursday: “The protocol won’t be fixed by displaying green and red signs and pretending the ECJ hasn’t got supreme jurisdiction in Northern Ireland when it manifestly has.

“NI must cease to be subject to laws made in Brussels. It’s as simple as that. Anything less won’t work.”

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