Wednesday, November 30, 2022

British-Irish Council: Leaders seek progress on Northern Ireland post-Brexit trade row

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Rishi Sunak is hoping to repair frayed relations with Ireland, paving the way for the UK-EU post-Brexit dispute to be resolved, at a British-Irish Council summit on Thursday.

The first UK prime minister to attend the summit for 15 years, he is meeting Taoiseach Micheál Martin in Blackpool.

The two leaders are looking for progress in the dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, where opposition from unionists means there is still no devolved government. 

“We face huge challenges from global economic headwinds to war in Europe. So let’s be pragmatic. Let’s work together in our shared interests,” Sunak was due to say at the opening of the summit, according to advance extracts provided by his office.

“Let’s deliver for all our people across these great islands — and build a future defined not by division, but by unity and hope.”

According to Downing Street, Sunak was expected to say he was “determined” to help restore the Northern Ireland assembly “as soon as possible”.

In recent weeks UK-Irish relations have warmed, and during Liz Truss’s brief tenure in Downing Street there were reports of progress over the Northern Ireland Protocol — negotiated before Brexit and part of the binding EU divorce deal — which is at the root of the months-long political stalemate.

It’s thought there may be some convergence over post-Brexit customs checks on goods shipped to the territory from other parts of the United Kingdom. 

“We absolutely believe we can fix this by sharing of data,” the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told LBC Radio.

The minister gave an indication of the government’s resolve to break the deadlock when asked whether the protocol would still be talked about in six months’ time. “God I hope not!” he replied.

Other sticking points, however, include oversight by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the EU single market for goods.

The outgoing EU ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, has told the Financial Times that the two sides are “not that far apart”. The envoy also reportedly said that agreement could pave the way for the UK to rejoin the EU’s Horizon Europe science programme.

Sunak backed Brexit in the UK’s 2016 referendum on leaving the EU — but has struck a more emollient tone than Boris Johnson, who seemed to revel in provocation and fractious relations with the bloc.

However, the prime minister also backs the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is going through the British parliament, which would allow the government to rip up part of the Brexit divorce deal. 

The legislation is a crucial issue for the anti-EU European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs.

The British government has pushed back a deadline to hold a new election in Northern Ireland until at least March to provide space for progress in EU-UK talks on the protocol. Dublin and Brussels have signalled their hope to reach an agreement in the coming weeks.

At the summit, Rishi Sunak was also due to meet leaders of the UK’s home countries of Scotland and Wales, who were snubbed by Truss during her tumultuous seven weeks in power.

Michelle O’Neill, leader of Irish nationalists Sinn Fein — who is expected to become Northern Ireland’s first minister if a government can be formed — regretted on Twitter that there would be no Northern Ireland assembly representative in Blackpool because the unionist DUP party was “preventing our voices from being heard”.

The British-Irish Council was established as part of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement peace deal to promote cooperation between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

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