Lord Frost will travel to Brussels on Thursday to discuss post-Brexit trade tensions in Northern Ireland, as senior DUP MPs expressed fears of further rioting unless the issue was dealt with.
The former Brexit negotiator, who is now in charge of EU relations, will hold talks with his European Commission counterpart Maros Sefcovic amid ongoing negotiations over the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Telegraph understands that the pair will have dinner together on Thursday evening, most likely in the Berlaymont building, following “positive” discussions over the timing and implementation of new rules and checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
While the outbreak of violence across Northern Ireland has given renewed impetus to the talks, Government sources insisted that the dinner was a long-standing engagement and played down the prospects of any imminent breakthrough.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will also meet Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney on Thursday following the unrest in the province, which resulted in 88 police officers being injured.
Meanwhile, figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed that UK trade with the EU bounced back in February following a record slump in January after the end of the transition period.
February’s export figures rose by almost half on the previous month, although they were still 11 per cent down compared to the same period last year.
It came as Mr Lewis faced renewed calls from unionist MPs to scrap the protocol, which has caused trade disruption for supermarkets and traders operating between Britain and the province.
Giving an update to MPs, Mr Lewis acknowledged that the protocol had helped fuel tensions within the loyalist community and urged Brussels to engage with their concerns over “national identity”.
However, he argued that the rioting was “multifaceted”, pointing to frustration over lockdown and the failure to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of former IRA figure Bobby Storey, in breach of covid-19 restrictions.
His claims drew criticism from the DUP, with Ian Paisley, the MP for North Antrim, responding: “The causes are not covid-19, the causes are not the Bobby Storey funeral - that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“The Secretary of State knows that the protocol lies at the heart of this, because the identity of Ulster is at stake. I fear a continuing downward spiral unless the Secretary of State takes action.
“All the condemnation in the world will not make the violence go away until actions are taken.”
Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s Westminster leader, added that while issues over policing and criminal justice had eroded “trust,” the creation of trade barriers through the protocol had also undermined unionists’ “sense of identity and the place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.”
Mr Lewis said the Government would take action to ensure the protocol worked for Northern Ireland, adding that Lord Frost was working “with our partners in the EU to come to and work out a proper solution that is a long-lasting solution”.
He also said he would look at convening a meeting of the British-Irish governmental conference, a joint body of the UK and Irish governments set up under the Good Friday agreement, in response to calls from MPs.
Mr Lewis stressed that this would be at an “appropriate time”, with Whitehall sources suggesting any meeting was yet to be agreed and would not be linked to the unrest, which is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive.
The UK and EU have been locked in tense negotiations since March, after the UK demanded two-year extensions to a host of grace periods for traders.
Lord Frost then opted to act unilaterally to ease pressure on supermarkets, parcel couriers and traders moving goods such plants and seed potatoes.
The move, which was taken outside of the UK-EU joint decision-making body, prompted Brussels to accuse ministers of breaching international law and launch a legal challenge in return.
The two sides are now believed to be making progress, with the EU calling for a clear timetable for implementing the protocol in full, while the UK is pushing for the bloc to drop its overzealous application of checks.
However, "significant differences" are said to remain, with the EU still to submit its plans for making the protocol work, after the UK submitted its proposals last month.
Brussels has also pushed the idea of an EU-UK veterinary agreement, which it argues would ease the vast majority of problems being experienced, particularly around supermarkets and agrifoods.
But the UK has pushed back against calls for dynamic alignment, which would effectively tie it to EU rules in the future, and is instead arguing for a deal based on equivalence, which is similar to other agreements the bloc has with other third countries.
On Tuesday a Government source insisted that the meeting was only a “staging post”, adding: “We've been working hard at a technical level with the Commission, and whilst the mood music is better, we are still some distance apart.
“Cross-community confidence and consent but be at the heart of our approach, and we need all sides to be practical and pragmatic and work to sustain that.”