EU and UK negotiators must be given ‘space’ to reach NI Protocol deal

UK and EU negotiators must be given space to find a resolution to the Northern Ireland Protocol impasse, Ireland’s deputy premier has said.

Micheal Martin, who is also Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, stressed that the UK Government and European Commission still had to overcome challenges if a deal was to be struck.

Mr Martin said it was “no bad thing” that not much detail was emerging from the process on the state of the negotiations.

British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin
Tanaiste Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Tanaiste was commenting as he arrived for a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels.

“I think the issues are challenging and I think the engagement is important,” he said.

“I think we all welcome the fact that the EU negotiating team and United Kingdom’s negotiating team have been engaging and continue to engage on the issue.

“And we would hope that those negotiations would be successful but they are very challenging, both for the UK government and for the European Union side.

“So, I’ve never understated the challenges that face them, but the important aspect of this is that they are talking and I do believe they should be allowed space to continue the negotiations.”

The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU in 2019 as a way to unlock the logjam over securing a Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Designed as a means to keep the Irish land border free-flowing, it moved regulatory and customs checks on goods to the Irish Sea, creating economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Many unionists in Northern Ireland are vehemently opposed to arrangements they claim have weakened the region’s place within the union.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned the Prime Minister not to serve up a ‘half baked’ deal (Liam McBurney/PA)

The DUP is currently blocking the functioning of powersharing at Stormont and has made clear it will not allow devolution to return unless major changes to the protocol are delivered.

On Sunday, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned the Prime Minister not to serve up a “half-baked” deal to resolve the protocol stand -off.

He cautioned against any interim arrangement with the EU as he urged Rishi Sunak to “get this done, and done properly”.

Sir Jeffrey also moved to downplay speculation that London and Brussels were on the cusp of striking a deal to end the stand-off over the contentious trading arrangements.

He said Cabinet ministers were advising him there was still “quite a gap” between to the two sides.

Sir Jeffrey told GB News the pressure was on the UK Government to deliver the “right deal”.

“I am very clear that we need to get this right and therefore I would say to the UK Government and to the Prime Minister, don’t go for a half-baked deal, don’t go for some kind of interim arrangement – let’s get this done, and done properly,” he said.

“Because if we’re to restore the political institutions in Northern Ireland, if we’re to be able to move Northern Ireland forward with cross-community support, then we need an agreement that unionists as well as nationalists can support.

“That means dealing with the very difficult and challenging issues. That’s what leadership is about. So, I think the pressure is on the UK Government to get a deal done, but I want to see them get the right deal for Northern Ireland and for the whole of the UK.”

Both London and Brussels are keen to secure a breakthrough that would facilitate the return to the devolved institutions at Stormont ahead of the anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast peace agreement on April 25.

The Government has tabled draft legislation – the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – that would empower ministers to unilaterally scrap the protocol without the consent of Brussels.

However, Mr Sunak has paused progress of the Bill through Parliament as efforts to secure a negotiated settlement with the EU have ramped up.