Gaps remain as Britain, EU press on with N.Ireland trade talks

The EU and Union Jack flags are flown outside the Houses of Parliament in London

By Sachin Ravikumar and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain and the European Union agreed on Monday to press on with talks in a "constructive" spirit to try to resolve a post-Brexit trade row over Northern Ireland, but London said that gaps remain between the two sides.

After months of deadlock and hostility, the mood between the two sides has improved and progress has been made in talks to unlock a dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that mandated checks on some goods moving to the province from the rest of the United Kingdom.

British foreign minister James Cleverly and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic agreed during a video call on Monday, their second meeting in a week, that work should carry on.

"The two sides discussed the range of existing challenges over the last two years and the need to find solutions together," the pair said in a joint statement.

"They agreed that this scoping work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit, taking careful account of each other's legitimate interests."

The talks gained momentum last week when Britain agreed to give the EU access to a real-time British database tracking goods moving across the Irish sea.

THREE KEY ISSUES

The current talks are aimed at resolving three key issues: checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, the application of EU law in the region, and the role of the European Court of Justice.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to secure a negotiated settlement to avoid triggering another legal dispute over the Brexit deal, but he must do so without angering the eurosceptic wing of his party who are most opposed to any alignment with the trading bloc.

Sunak's spokesman earlier played down media reports that the negotiations were nearing a breakthrough.

"I would guide away from that sort of speculation at the moment. Again, emphasising there are still gaps in our position that need to be resolved to address these problems," he said.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has refused to enter Northern Ireland's devolved parliament since elections in May due to the trade checks, said there was "a long road to travel" and that the protocol must be replaced in full.

"This is not a time for sticking plasters," DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said in a statement.

The Northern Ireland protocol was a key part of the Brexit deal agreed by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson - who was ousted in September - but one that his two successors as prime minister have refused to implement.

(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London and Amanda Ferguson in Belfast, Writing by William James and Sachin Ravikumar, Editing by Kylie MacLellan and Alex Richardson)