by Amanda Ferguson and Elizabeth Piper
BALLYNAHINCH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – There are real differences between British and European Union negotiators that could take some time to resolve if talks on revising post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland are successful, the UK foreign minister said on Wednesday.
James Cleverly was speaking with political and business leaders in Northern Ireland after meeting with political and business leaders to discuss challenges with trade regulations after years of easing in the standoff made some headway this week.
Cleverly told reporters, “Optimism is great, it’s important to have a spirit of optimism, but there are still real differences and they can’t just be removed, they need to be resolved, and sometimes it takes a while.”
Post-Brexit trade arrangements, the so-called Northern Ireland protocol agreed with the European Union, have strained not only the British-administered province but also ties between London and Brussels on the deal.
In the last few months, however, the tone of negotiations to resolve protocol-related differences has softened, and the animosity that has dominated the debate since 2019 has given way to new pressure to find a negotiated solution.
He cleverly said that years of negotiating and “yelling at a distance” via social media hasn’t worked, and that the forward agreement with the EU on Monday to share live data shows that the new tone of discussing differences secretly does.
London has to walk a fine line. Ministers want a negotiated solution with the EU rather than triggering another legal dispute over the Brexit deal, but they must also hold back the unionist politicians in the state who spearheaded the nearly year-long boycott of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.
Wednesday’s meetings are the latest in a renewed flurry of diplomacy since the appointment of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in October. Negotiations on resolving the protocol issues had almost completely stalled under his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Micheal Martin will be in Belfast on Thursday for a series of talks, with leaders of Northern Ireland’s main parties on the phone on Monday.
The protocol was put in place to try to preserve the 1998 peace deal by avoiding a rigid border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, but this also meant that the province remained virtually in the bloc’s sole market for goods that required some control of incoming products. from the rest of the UK.
Britain refused to enforce most of the controls and criticized the EU for being too diligent in enforcing the protocol, damaging businesses in the province and straining ties between political groups. Brussels said it was open to being flexible about the protocol but refused to rewrite the protocol.
London is also keen to resolve the issue to help get Northern Ireland’s regional council back into operation – the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) says it won’t happen until the checks are gone.
“The EU will have to step back and we haven’t seen that from the EU, except for poking around the edges of the protocol,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters after meeting with Cleverly.
(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin of Dublin; editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)