Mountain to climb to resolve NI Protocol issues, says Irish deputy PM

Ireland’s deputy premier has urged patience with the negotiations to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, insisting a mountain has to be climbed.

Micheal Martin said the UK and EU negotiators still needed to overcome “formidable challenges” if they were to find an agreed solution to cutting red tape on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

While speculation continues to mount that London and Brussels are on the path to striking a deal over post-Brexit trading arrangements, Mr Martin said the talks should be given “time and space”.

Mr Martin joined UK ministerial counterparts at a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin on Thursday.

British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (Brian Lawless/PA)

Commenting on the prospects of a deal on the protocol, he said: “The issues are very challenging.

“So, I don’t understate the formidable challenges and the mountain that has to be climbed.

“So, I do think it’s worth the effort.”

Mr Martin added: “It makes sense to be patient here and just to see how this evolves and unfolds.”

The protocol impasse has led to the collapse of devolution in Northern Ireland, with the DUP insisting it will not lift its veto on Stormont powersharing until the protocol’s economic barriers on GB-NI trade are removed.

Both London and Brussels are keen to secure a breakthrough that would facilitate the return to the devolved institutions in Belfast before April’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.

Earlier on Thursday, Irish premier Leo Varadkar made clear that while it would be “really good” to secure a deal before the anniversary, it was not a hard deadline.

“It is a real shame that the institutions created by the agreement are not really functioning, particularly the assembly, the executive and the north-south bodies,” he told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“And I think that’s a real shame. So, it would be really good I think if we could have an agreement and the institutions operating again by April.

“But if that’s not possible, that’s not going to cause us to stop.

“So it isn’t an absolute deadline in law or anything like that.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, who also attended the intergovernmental conference in Dublin, expressed hope that a breakthrough on EU/UK talks could deliver a solution that facilitates the return of Stormont powersharing.

However, he declined to offer any detail on the state of the negotiations between London and Brussels.

“I’m working with what I know I think we can deliver and let’s not pre-empt anything,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what the talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union can bring forward and I very much hope that we can move forward from there.”