Hopes of deal on N. Ireland protocol as EU chief to meet UK PM

The prospect of a deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland appeared tantalisingly close Sunday as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced they were to meet in the UK "for final talks".

The planned meeting on Monday follows months of intensive negotiations over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which was signed between London and Brussels as part of the UK's Brexit divorce from the European Union.

The protocol has kept Northern Ireland in the European single market -- to the anger of the province's pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Any revision of the protocol will have to reassure not just the DUP but also some sections of Sunak's Conservative Party, which fear a fraying of bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The two leaders were expected "to meet late lunchtime Monday for final talks" in Berkshire, a county west of London, said a statement released by Sunak's Downing Street office late on Sunday.

- 'Sovereignty' -

"The prime minister wants to ensure that any deal fixes the practical problems on the ground, ensures trade flows freely within the whole of the UK, safeguards Northern Ireland's place in our Union and returns sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland," the PM's office said.

A cabinet meeting would take place in the afternoon at which an update on the talks would be given.

If a final deal is agreed, Sunak and von der Leyen will hold a short joint press conference in the late afternoon.

Sunak would then head to parliament to deliver a statement on the agreement, Downing Street said.

Hours before Sunak and von der Leyen announced the meeting, however, a member of the Eurosceptic wing of the prime minister's party warned that parliament should not be rushed into accepting a deal.

"Trying to bounce parliament usually ends badly," Mark Francois, chairman of the hardline European Research Group of Conservative MPs, told Sky News.

He said the issue was about "whose law was sovereign in Northern Ireland. We need to get rid of EU law in Northern Ireland."

The text of any deal should be shown to MPs so they could "fully understand it then at that point we might be ready to vote on it", he said.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar, meanwhile, welcomed news of the meeting.

"We should acknowledge the level of engagement between the UK gov, the European Commission and the NI parties in recent months," he said on Twitter.

As speculation mounted on Saturday that an agreement was imminent, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) said he believed a deal was close.

"Certainly the deal isn't done yet," Varadkar told broadcaster RTE. "But I do think we are inching towards conclusion."

As Ireland remains a member of the European Union, Brexit created a land border between the United Kingdom and the EU.

- Lighter-touch rules -

Von der Leyen had been expected to travel to Britain on Saturday, and was to meet King Charles III.

UK government sources, however, confirmed to the PA news agency that that trip had been called off.

Disagreements over the protocol have stopped the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Opponents are especially vigilant against any changes that would see EU single market laws continue to apply in Northern Ireland, even if lighter-touch rules favoured by both sides were introduced.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since February last year because of a walk-out by the DUP.

The party had been due to share power with pro-Ireland Sinn Fein, which became the biggest party in the assembly after elections last May.

But the DUP collapsed the power-sharing executive because of its opposition to the Brexit protocol.

The DUP has always said it wants the protocol overhauled or scrapped entirely, arguing it casts Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK and makes a united Ireland more likely.