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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to media earlier this week. Sasko Lazarov
Northern Ireland

Taoiseach 'quietly confident' of Protocol deal 'within a week or two' as Sunak meets NI leaders

British PM Rishi Sunak held bilateral meetings with NI leaders today amid mounting speculation a deal on the Irish trading arrangements is close.

THE TAOISEACH HAS said he is “quietly confident” that an agreement between the EU and UK on the Brexit protocol could be achieved “within the next week or two”.

It comes after British prime minister Rishi Sunak held bilateral meetings with all five of the main Northern Ireland parties at a hotel on the outskirts of Belfast amid mounting speculation that a UK/EU deal on the Irish trading arrangements is close.

Following his visit to Northern Ireland, Sunak is set to join European leaders in Germany this weekend for the Munich Security Conference and the protocol is likely to feature in discussions on the margins.

There is mounting speculation that a deal between the EU and UK could be unveiled early next week.

While Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin has cautioned that he believes there is a “distance to go yet”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he is “quietly confident” that an agreement between the UK and the EU could be reached soon. 

“A lot of progress is being made, we are not there yet but certainly a lot off trust has been built up between the European Commission and Ireland and the British government,” Varadkar told reporters in Limerick today.

“I do believe the prospect is there of having an agreement possibly within a week – it’s not finalised we haven’t all seen the final text yet, but we are getting there,” he continued.

“I’m quietly confident that within the next week or two we could be in a position to sign off on an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom and that would be a big boost I think, first of all because it would allow us to normalise political and trading relationships between Britain’s and the European Union and Ireland, putting an end to a very difficult period that started with the Brexit referendum.”

“But most importantly, it opens the prospect of getting the Assembly and Executive up and running in Northern Ireland so that people have a government functioning in Northern Ireland and have the Good Friday Agreement working again.”

Speaking to broadcasters in Downing Street this evening, Sunak said he had “positive conversations” with political parties to resolve the Protocol issues, but that “there is more work to do” on finding a deal.

“Now it is clear that we need to find solutions to the practical problems that the Protocol is causing families and business in Northern Ireland, as well as address the democratic deficit,” he said. 

“There is more work to do, and that’s why my ministerial colleagues and I will continue talking to the European Union intensely to find solutions that protect the Belfast Good Friday agreement and Northern Ireland’s place in our single market.”

In another apparent sign of progress, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly met with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.

The cross-community Alliance Party was the first in to meet Sunak at a hotel on the outskirts this morning. Sinn Féin, the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP also met with Sunak. 

Speaking after his meeting with Sunak, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that “progress has been made across a range of issues”, but that there is “still some areas where further work is required” to get a deal. 

“The decisions that will be taken by the Prime Minister and by the European Commission will either consign Northern Ireland to more division or they will clear a path towards healing and towards the restoration of the political institutions,” Donaldson told reporters. 

Donaldson said the party has not seen the final text of an agreement yet, adding there will be further discussions between the UK government and the EU. 

“If and when a final agreement is reached, we will want to carefully consider the detail of that agreement and decide if the agreement does, in fact, meet our seven tests,” he said. 

Donaldson said the DUP has been “very clear with the Prime Minister that those seven tests remain the basis upon which we will judge any agreement”. 

sinn-fein-party-leader-mary-lou-mcdonald-left-and-vice-president-michelle-oneill-arrive-at-the-culloden-hotel-in-belfast-where-prime-minister-rishi-sunak-is-holding-talks-with-stormont-leaders-ove Sinn Féin Party leader Mary Lou McDonald (left) and vice president Michelle O'Neill arrive at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It was put to Sunak that Donaldson had said the EU needed to “stretch itself to achieve a deal”.

Asked if he agreed, the UK Prime Minister said he had set himself “tests” on any potential agreement with Brussels, including “crucially that we address the democratic deficit”.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said that indications of progress on the Northern Ireland Protocol was heartening.

“It’s clear now that significant progress has been made and we’re very heartened by that,” she said after meeting with Sunak.

When asked about whether a deal on the protocol had been done, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said:

“I believe that very, very significant progress has been made and I believe that a deal is absolutely possible, and absolutely necessary.

“It was a very constructive meeting and it was my first occasion to meet the Prime Minister, but I look forward to many further engagements with him,” McDonald said. 

“He accepts that the core of the protocol has worked and he has expressed the need to negotiate and to figure out how to resolve those parts that need a smoother application, or, as he put it, ‘the parts that weren’t working’.

“There’s no doubt, the protocol is a consequence of Brexit and the protocol is necessary, and the Prime Minister is in absolutely no doubt of that.”

Speaking after engaging with Sunak this morning, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said he is in listening mode, and that there is “some heavy lifting still to be done” to secure a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol.

She said it was “a very constructive and very positive meeting”.

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

“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.”

alliance-party-leader-naomi-long-speaks-to-the-media-outside-the-culloden-hotel-in-belfast-where-prime-minister-rishi-sunak-is-holding-talks-with-stormont-leaders-over-the-northern-ireland-protocol Alliance Party leader Naomi Long speaks to the media outside the Culloden Hotel in Belfast today Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The UK and the EU have been engaged 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 instead created economic barriers on trade being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

It has proven to be deeply unpopular with unionists, who claim it has weakened Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, and the DUP has collapsed the powersharing institutions at Stormont in protest at the arrangements.

Emerging from his meeting with 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 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.

Eastwood said he made clear to 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.

“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.”

sdlp-leader-colum-eastwood-right-and-party-colleague-matthew-otoole-speak-to-the-media-outside-the-culloden-hotel-in-belfast-where-prime-minister-rishi-sunak-is-holding-talks-with-stormont-leaders SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (right) and party colleague Matthew O'Toole speak to the media outside the Culloden Hotel today Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A number 10 spokeswoman said the British Prime Minister was meeting 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 Cleverly’s Brussels meeting with 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”.

Cleverly said his meeting with Sefcovic was “constructive”. 

“We discussed the work ongoing between UK and EU to find a solution on the NI Protocol. Intensive work continues,” he tweeted. 

Sefcovic also called the meeting “constructive” and said there had been “good progress”. 

“The shared objective clear: joint solutions, responding to the everyday concerns of people in NI. Hard work continues,” he tweeted. 


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 Great 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 yesterday: “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.”

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said it was “fundamental” that Northern Ireland was not separated legally from the rest of the UK.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and asked if there is a system they would accept that involves oversight from the European Court of Justice, Wilson said:

“If the issue of being part of the single market rules and single market laws is removed from Northern Ireland, then there’s no need for the European Court of Justice.”

Asked if that is what he is calling for, he said: “It would ensure that Brexit actually applied to Northern Ireland, it would ensure that the UK Government had sovereignty over this part of the United Kingdom and that Northern Ireland was not separated legally from the rest of the United Kingdom as a result of the protocol.

“That’s fundamental. Indeed, that is not something that we have been asking for alone, the Government itself in its command paper last autumn, and in the Protocol Bill which is now stalled in the House of Lords, was demanding that as well and saying that if the EU did not come to that point in negotiations, that they would act unilaterally to ensure that that happened.”

Includes reporting by Press Association and David Raleigh

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