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Sasko Lazarov

'We're on a positive trajectory': Politicians hope EU and UK talks on NI protocol can move forward

Micheál Martin has urged patience with the negotiations to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Jan 2023

TÁNAISTE MICHEÁL MARTIN has urged patience with the negotiations to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, insisting a mountain has to be climbed.

Speaking to reporters at Farmleigh House in Phoenix Park this evening where he met with his UK ministerial counterparts at a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, he said the talks between the EU and UK should be given “time and space”.

“The issues are very challenging,” he said.

“So I don’t understate the formidable challenges and the mountain that has to be climbed. So I do think it’s worth the effort.”

Martin added: “It makes sense to be patient here and just to see how this evolves and unfolds.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris declined to offer any detail on the negotiations between the UK and EU.

“I’m working with what I know I think we can deliver and let’s not pre-empt anything,” he said after the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what the talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union can bring forward and I very much hope that we can move forward from there.”

His comments come as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the Irish government has had no indication yet from Heaton-Harris that he intends to call an election. 

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he said:  

“We haven’t heard any indication from him yet. I know he’s in regular contact with the Tánaiste, so probably best for me not to speculate on what he’s going to say.”

Minister of State for Northern Ireland Steve Baker told reporters in Dublin today that the public needed to know that today’s meeting was a “great success”.

“I’m pleased because we’re now on a positive trajectory together. And we’re going to work together. We’re always going to face problems, but we’re going to face those problems together,” he said, adding that he was very pleased and proud of the group’s work today.

British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference 019 Minister of State for Northern Ireland Steve Baker.

Another deadline for forming a devolved executive in Northern Ireland is set to fall by the wayside as the deadlock over post-Brexit trading arrangements continues.

If the Stormont parties do not agree to form an administration in Belfast today, the UK Government assumes a legal duty at midnight to call a snap Assembly election in the region.

An ongoing DUP block on the functioning of powersharing, in protest at Brexit’s , means it is almost certain the day will pass without an executive being convened.

19 January is the latest in series of deadlines the parties have been given to resurrect devolution following the last election in May.

As the institutions can only function with the cooperation of the largest nationalist party and largest unionist party, the DUP effectively holds a veto on powersharing returning.

The party has made clear it will only go back into government if significant changes are delivered on the protocol.

Heaton-Harris said on Twitter today that if no Executive is formed today, “I’ll be under a legal duty to hold elections to the Assembly in the next 12 weeks”.

“I’ll use the next few weeks to carefully assess all options about what happens next and continue to talk to all interested parties before I make any decisions,” he said. 

The Stormont impasse is sure to feature prominently when Heaton-Harris attends the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference which is taking place in Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park this afternoon. 

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Micheál Martin will represent the Irish Government at the conference. He will be joined by Minister for Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport, Eamon Ryan and Minister for Justice Simon Harris.

The British Government will be represented by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Rt Hon Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Steve Baker MP, Minister of State for Energy and Climate, Graham Stuart MP, Minister of State for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure, Julia Lopez.

Varadkar said today that it would be a “really good thing” if agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol could be reached by the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April. 

“It is a real shame that the institutions created by the agreement are not really functioning, particularly the Assembly, the Executive and the North-South bodies. And I think that’s a real shame. So it would be really good, I think, if we could have an agreement and the institutions operating again by April.

“But if that’s not possible, that’s not going to cause us to stop. It isn’t an absolute deadline in law or anything like that. But of course, for lots of reasons, it’d be nice to have an agreement before then,” he said.

Varadkar said the Irish government is playing its part, as part of the European Union, to be “as flexible and be as reasonable as we can” as long as there’s no alteration to the basic principles of the agreement, such as no hard border between North and South and that the integrity of the single market is upheld.

NI Protocol

Many unionists in Northern Ireland are vehemently opposed to arrangements that have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland, insisting the protocol has weakened the region’s place within the United Kingdom.

The EU and UK continue to engage in negotiations aimed at significantly reducing the red tape on Irish Sea trade, with both sides recently talking up the potential of an agreed solution being reached.

The DUP has made clear any agreement that may emerge must meet its tests on removing trade barriers if it is to countenance a return to Stormont.

If the latest deadline passes, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris assumes a duty to call an election within 12 weeks.

However, he does not have to announce a date for a poll immediately.

British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference 015 Politicians at a press conference after the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Farmleigh House this evening. Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

Polling day is usually around six weeks after an election is announced, so Heaton-Harris would have until mid-March to call a poll if it is to be held before the 12-week period expires in mid-April.

That would give Heaton-Harris another six weeks to see what emerges from the UK-EU talks on the protocol.

If a deal emerges in the coming weeks, and the DUP agrees to re-enter powersharing on the back of it, the Northern Ireland Secretary could then ask Parliament to retrospectively extend the 19 January deadline for forming an executive – meaning the parties could return to Stormont without the need for a fresh election.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said she would like to see a deal between the UK and EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol deal with concerns around “overly burdensome checks” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and the administrative burden.

“These are issues that have been raised, these are issues that are amenable to solutions, I think we’re very close,” she told Sky News.

“A majority of people elected in the north of Ireland support the protocol, people in business will say, ‘here are the difficulties’, but everyone accepts that the protocol needs to be finessed, but we need the protocol as a consequence of Brexit.”

Asked about the DUP’s concerns about a trade border down the Irish Sea, McDonald responded: “The DUP have their view, they express their concerns, and that’s fine. There are other views, they do not represent the majority view in the north of Ireland.

“We need everybody back in Stormont and what we need is an acceptance for powersharing to work, you have to be prepared to share power. We also need a democratic acceptance that in order for government to work, you have to come at things in a reasonable frame of mind, and it can’t be a case of my way or the highway, that’s not fair.

“I would challenge the DUP in this regard, so many important things that really matter in people’s day-to-day lives have either been delayed or haven’t happened at all because we don’t have government in the north.

“If their view is that they can crash the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in hope of a return to direct rule from London, that is not an option,” said McDonald.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said that she wanted all the parties back around the Executive table, as she called for a solution that is “pragmatic, that’s long lasting, to provide certainty and stability”.

“The DUP have to shoulder some responsibility for bringing us to the point that we’re in today,” she told BBC Newsnight.

“I believe in power-sharing. I believe in all the parties working together. I believe in all voices being heard. And I want to see a solution here and I want to get us back into the executive.”

Expressing some optimism about progress towards a deal on the protocol, she said: “I am encouraged by the conversation this week that’s been heard between both the EU and the British Government.

“I’m encouraged that [Foreign Secretary] James Cleverly is the United States because the United States are a big friend of the peace process.”

With reporting by Christina Finn

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