Rishi Sunak meets Stormont leaders over Northern Ireland Protocol

Rishi Sunak Meets Stormont Leaders Over Northern Ireland Protocol
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (left) and vice president Michelle O'Neill arrive at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast, where British prime minister Rishi Sunak is holding talks with Stormont leaders over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Photo: PA
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By Jonathan McCambridge, PA

British prime minister Rishi Sunak is holding talks with Stormont leaders over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris met the politicians at a luxury hotel near Belfast amid growing speculation over a deal within days on the post-Brexit trading arrangement.


Newspaper reports have suggested the Mr Sunak could brief his Cabinet on the deal and announce it in the British parliament on Tuesday.

In another apparent sign of progress, UK foreign secretary James Cleverly will travel to Brussels for a meeting with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.


However, Tánaiste Micheál 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 five main Stormont parties – Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP – were invited for individual meetings with Mr Sunak on Friday morning.

The cross-community Alliance Party was the first in to meet the Mr Sunak at the Culloden Estate on the outskirts of Belfast.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said Mr Sunak was in listening mode, and that there is “some heavy lifting still to be done” to secure a deal.


She said Mr Sunak did not offer details on the potential shape of an agreement but she nevertheless described the encounter as “a very constructive and very positive meeting”.

“He was very much in listening mode and keen to hear our views,” she said.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long speaks to the media outside the Culloden Hotel in Belfast, where Rishi Sunak is holding talks with Stormont leaders over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Photo: PA

“It seems apparent that while he was not in a position to brief us about the details, that things are gradually moving in the direction of a potential deal.


“But we are not over the line yet. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be very soon, but there’s clearly some heavy lifting still to be done.”

Emerging from his meeting with Mr Sunak, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the British prime minister had given “scant” detail on the potential deal with the EU.

He said he believed that Mr Sunak was “ticking the box” of engaging with the Stormont parties.

“I think he’s very careful not to get into too much detail until the deal is done and I suppose that’s fair enough,” he said.


Mr Eastwood said he made clear to Mr Sunak that the dual market access provided for in the protocol, allowing business in Northern Ireland to sell unfettered into the EU single market, must be preserved.

“He said the deal is not done yet,” he added.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (right) and party colleague Matthew O'Toole arrive at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast. Photo: PA

“I think he’s clear that lots of progress has been made and that’s what we’ve been hearing from the European side and from Dublin as well. But he says it’s not done and he’s going to Munich to see Ursula von der Leyen (European Commission president) and we’ll see what comes out of that.

“But I would be fairly optimistic that we’re very close to an agreement.

“We have to be courageous and we have to take steps that allow local governance to be back up and running to deal with the health service and to pick up the opportunities that the protocol provides for the economy.”

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

The protocol has proven to be deeply unpopular with unionists and the DUP has collapsed the powersharing institutions at Stormont in protest at the arrangements.

A number 10 spokeswoman confirmed Mr Sunak 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 UK 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.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)

He told RTÉ: “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.”

However, senior figures within 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 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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