UK not placing any deadlines on EU talks to resolve NI Protocol – Heaton-Harris

The UK is not setting any deadlines on its talks with the EU to resolve issues with Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, Chris Heaton-Harris has said.

The Northern Ireland Secretary said putting a time limit on negotiations between London and Brussels would potentially lead to them unravelling.

Both sides are keen to strike a deal to break the logjam over the contentious trading arrangements before April’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s historic Good Friday peace agreement.

However, Mr Heaton-Harris, who is on a visit to the US aimed at promoting Northern Ireland as an investment location, said the anniversary was not fixed deadline for the talks.

Stormont
The Northern Ireland Assembly is in cold storage due to the logjam over the Northern Ireland Protocol (Liam McBurney/PA).

In an interview with BBC NI, the Cabinet minister was asked about the chances of a resolution emerging before April.

“I’m a glass half-full person, I really do think we can find solutions to these problems,” he said.

“But we haven’t been setting any deadlines whatsoever in these talks, because it’s proven in the past to be one sure-fire way of making things unravel pretty quickly.

“And we’re also not commenting on the content of any talks with the European Union, because that equally has the potential to unravel them.

“So when we get closer to a solution, I’m hopeful we can, then I’ll start talking about it slightly more.”

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.

An agreement between the EU and UK would not guarantee the restoration of devolution, as the DUP may ultimately reject it and continue with its Stormont boycott.

There has been speculation that US President Joe Biden may visit the region to mark April’s anniversary, but possibly only if the powersharing institutions are in place at the time.

Mr Heaton-Harris said the prospect of a presidential visit to Northern Ireland has not featured prominently in his engagements in the US this week.

“Everyone knows that there are rumours of a potential visit but, no, there’s been no confirmation of that,” he said.

“I’m quite sure President Biden wants to come to Northern Ireland whatever (with or without powersharing in place) because it is a vibrant place and he has a very strong interest in Ireland and Northern Ireland both succeeding.

“I’ve got to say it hasn’t figured as a big part of any of the conversations I’ve had. We’ve focused much more on practical business issues whilst I’ve been here.”

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.

On Tuesday, Mr Heaton-Harris met with the new US special envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy III.

The two men discussed plans to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in the UK and the US, and ways of increasing trade and investment opportunities.

Mr Kennedy, a member of the most famous Irish-American political family, was appointed as US special envoy by President Biden in December.

The 42-year-old former Democratic congressman filled the role that had been vacant since January 2021, after the envoy under Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney, stepped down from the post.