Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (2nd L) and Microsoft founder Bill Gates (2nd R) speak with members of Econic a startup developing technologies that enable the use of captured CO₂ to make low-cost and sustainable plastics, during a visit of the Imperial College University, in central London, on February 15, 2023. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / POOL / AFP)
(AFP) – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held talks near Belfast on Friday with local political parties as reports said an amended deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol could be reached imminently.
The protocol on post-Brexit trading rules, signed between London and Brussels keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market and customs union and stipulates checks on goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland.
It has proved deeply unpopular with the UK-run province’s unionist politicians, causing months of political deadlock.
London and Brussels have been negotiating for months to try to ease tensions over the trade arrangements.
Sunak stayed overnight at the Culloden Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast and then held brief individual meetings Friday with leaders of the main Stormont parties, ending with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
He was attempting to persuade the parties to back changes to the trading conditions agreed with Brussels.
Emerging from the meetings, politicians were cautiously optimistic.
“Clearly this is a big moment,” Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP told journalists.
“I think that progress has been made across a range of issues and we welcome that. But I think there are still some areas where final agreement with the EU is still outstanding.”
Donaldson added: “We’ve not yet seen the final text of an agreement.”
Sunak “did say there’s a way to go yet, so that tells me that a deal has not been finalised,” said Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald gave an upbeat assessment, saying: “It’s very much game on.” Her party is in favour of the protocol to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
Sunak left the hotel around midday without speaking to press.
– ‘EU talks ongoing’ –
A Downing Street spokeswoman said earlier that “talks with the EU are ongoing” and the Belfast meetings are part of an “engagement process” to fix practical problems and safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.
The Daily Telegraph reported multiple UK sources as saying that Sunak is expected to brief his government and announce the deal in parliament Tuesday.
Sunak is set to meet European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at a conference in Munich over the weekend “raising hopes of an imminent deal”, the Guardian reported.
Foreign minister James Cleverly said he had a “constructive meeting” with the EU pointman on the issue, Maros Sefcovic, in Brussels on Friday.
Irish deputy premier Micheal Martin has said that he believes there is a “distance to go yet” on reaching a deal, however.
The DUP wants the deal overhauled or scrapped entirely, arguing it casts the province adrift from the rest of the UK and makes a united Ireland more likely.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson told the BBC Friday that the deal must remove the automatic application of EU law to Northern Ireland, saying “the province had been “abandoned to the EU”.
The DUP walked out of Stormont in February 2022, mainly in protest at the protocol, causing political paralysis.
Britain this month said it would push back the deadline for Northern Ireland’s parties to form a government for a year to 18 January 2024 but reserved the right to call an election at any time in the intervening period.
© Agence France-Presse