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UK Foreign Affairs Minister James Cleverly with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic UK Government
eu-uk relations

Explainer: What's the latest with Brexit and Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations?

An agreement on data sharing was reached by the UK and EU yesterday.

LAST UPDATE | 10 Jan 2023

A WEEK INTO 2023, the Brexit issue is still ongoing.

Seven years on from the UK voting to leave the European Union and almost three years on from the Withdrawal Agreement being signed, the outworkings of Brexit remain an issue and, while not as dominant, continue to play a role in Irish politics.

While there has been some movement in the last day, there are still significant hurdles  for the two sides in the divorces – the UK and the EU – to overcome before the issue around the Northern Ireland Protocol is resolved.

The DUP is continuing to block the sitting of the Assembly and the establishment of an Executive over the Protocol, and say they will do so until they are satisfied with an agreement.

Before Christmas, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that there were “mistakes” made over the handling of Brexit.

He told political journalists at a roundtable in December that the Protocol itself was “too strict” and that he understood the concerns of Unionists.

“We are willing to show flexibility and to make compromises. We do want there to be an agreement,” Varadkar said.

What’s happening?

In the last 24 hours, there has been some progress made between the EU and UK.

Yesterday, a joint statement from UK Foreign Minister James Cleverly and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic announced that there had been an agreement on data sharing.

The agreement itself is around EU access to UK IT systems, with both sides hailing it as a key step in moving forward to solve the ongoing row over the Protocol.

“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,” reads the joint statement issued yesterday.

The meeting itself was described as “cordial and constructive”, with both Cleverly and Sefcovic noting that this sharing of data systems was a “critical prerequisite” to building trust between the EU and UK.

The meeting will now allow for renewed discussions between UK and EU technical teams, who “will work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding”.

But what exactly was the issue?

Previously, the EU had complained about a lack of access to real-time UK data on goods that were entering into Northern Ireland from Britain.

These goods would cross the Irish Sea border – which was created by the Northern Ireland Protocol – with the EU not having all the information required on what was crossing into Northern Ireland.

Progress welcomed

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has welcomed the progress made between the UK and EU, calling it a “breakthrough”.

“It’s very positive progress after over a year with no progress at all,” Varadkar said.

“I think it does open the door to further agreement on how we can make the protocol more workable and more acceptable.”

Varadkar added that he would be travelling to Northern Ireland this Thursday to engage with parties and that he expected to speak with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The agreement has also been welcomed by Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin, who told reporters in Brussels that it was a “very significant building block to to a potential agreement”.

visite-de-micheal-martin-ministre-irlandais-des-affaires-etrangeres-tanaiste-et-ministre-de-la-defense-a-la-commission-europeenne Tánaiste Micheál Martin meeting with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic Christophe Licoppe Christophe Licoppe

“I think confidence and trust is essential to any relationship and I think the agreement yesterday does signify, sort of, a growing, trusted relationship with European Union negotiators and the United Kingdom negotiators, which I think is welcome.”

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also said that the agreement was an “important step forward” but that there were “still significant issues at the heart of the protocol”.

Martin also spoke with parties in Northern Ireland yesterday and said that he had “good engagement” with them ahead of his meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris later this week.

What happens next?

Today, the Tánaiste is due to meet with Sefcovic in Brussels for discussions on the Protocol, particularly around yesterday’s agreement.

Both Cleverly and Sefcovic have also said that they will be “taking stock” of the technical talks between UK and EU negotiators in a meeting on 16 January.

There are hopes that a final negotiating ‘tunnel’ can be reached when the technical discussions are complete.

The key date ahead is 10 April, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, with hopes that a deal can be reached to allow for the restoration of both the Assembly and the Executive. 

However, whether or not a deal will be able to unlock power-sharing due to the DUP’s veto is still unknown.

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