Explainer-Talks on post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade edge closer to deal
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain and the European Union are edging closer to an agreement on solving a dispute over their post-Brexit trading arrangements with Northern Ireland, but any resolution hangs in the balance as it will have to please the demands of several parties.
Below are details on what the different parties want.
WHAT IS THE NORTHERN IRELAND PROTOCOL?
One of the most difficult parts of Brexit negotiations was how to make sure Britain could trade freely with its province of Northern Ireland without creating a hard border with EU member Ireland to stop goods flowing unchecked into its single market.
To square that circle, former prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to effectively leave Northern Ireland within the EU's single market for goods, meaning the province has to follow the bloc's laws in relation to those movements. Northern Ireland also remains part of the UK's customs territory.
That effectively created a customs border in the sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, which pro-British communities say erodes their place within the UK. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland's biggest unionist party, also says the province should not have to follow laws without having a say.
London says the bureaucracy - checks and paperwork for the trade of some goods - created by the Northern Ireland protocol is threatening the 1998 peace agreement that mostly ended three decades of sectarian violence in the province.
While opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of Northern Irish voters - who earlier opposed Brexit - favour the idea of the protocol, the province's assembly and power-sharing government have not sat for a year due to unionist opposition.
Technical talks resumed in October for the first time in seven months, shortly after Rishi Sunak was appointed Britain's third prime minister in as many months.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN ISSUES?
In January, Britain and the EU agreed a way forward on sharing live data with the EU on trade with Northern Ireland, ushering in a likely agreement on customs that would involve green lanes for goods bound only for Northern Ireland and red lanes for products heading into Ireland.
The EU has said it is open to the idea of express lanes so long as safeguards are in place - something that Britain says it can assure by sharing real-time customs data with the bloc.
In a sign of how poor relations became under both Johnson and his successor, Liz Truss, the new system to offer the EU customs data went live in January 2022 but was not tested by officials in the block until late that year.
European Court of Justice
Officials have declined to comment on how they will ease the concerns of the DUP and some pro-Brexit Conservatives over the role of the European Court of Justice, or rather the application of EU law in a British governed province.
The DUP has said in one of its tests for an agreement that any new arrangement "must give the people of Northern Ireland a say in the making of the laws which govern them".
The protocol specifies those EU regulations and directives with which Northern Ireland must remain aligned. According to so-called dynamic alignment, this also means that any new EU acts may also be added to those that apply in Northern Ireland.
The Telegraph newspaper said earlier this month that the exact role of the ECJ was likely to be presented differently by the EU and Britain. London would play up the role of Northern Irish judges, while the ECJ will be the ultimate arbiter of disputes about EU law in the province.
This has drawn criticism from Brexit-supporting Conservatives, who say it is little more than "a tweak" to the original protocol, one which does not solve the problem of Northern Ireland having to follow EU law.
OPPOSITION OR SUPPORT?
The British government has been at pains to keep the negotiations as secret or as private as possible due to their sensitivity. But this approach has fuelled speculation over how far the two sides have moved to overcome some of the issues.
At a meeting with Sunak last week, the DUP tentatively welcomed progress in the talks but reiterated its seven tests to be able to approve any deal.
Pro-Brexit Conservatives, who are part of the so-called European Research Group, have said they will support the stance of the DUP, while raising concerns over the continued role of EU law and over the government's reported plan to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
The bill, if passed by parliament, would give the British government the power to unilaterally decide to all but renege on the agreement - something Johnson said was an important negotiating tool with the EU.
A source close to Johnson said the former prime minister, who was ousted by his own lawmakers last year, generally thought "it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill".
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London, Amanda Ferguson in Belfast and Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Nick Macfie)