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UK and EU hail Northern Ireland protocol breakthrough

James Cleverly – Lucy North/PA

The UK and EU hailed a breakthrough in Brexit talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Monday, unlocking intensive negotiations over the Irish Sea border.

The agreement has given new impetus to the race to reach a protocol deal before the unofficial April 10 deadline of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Joe Biden, the US president, has warned that he will not attend the celebrations of the peace agreement unless a protocol deal has been reached.

The Government and Brussels struck a mini-deal on the thorny issue of EU access to UK databases on trade flows of goods and animals from Britain to Northern Ireland during lunchtime talks in London.

“This means a new basis for EU UK discussions on the protocol,” said Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s chief negotiator.

James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, said: “We share the same focus – finding the best outcome for Northern Ireland. Today’s progress on data sharing marks a positive step in discussions on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

A joint statement agreed by the two negotiators said: “This work was a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance. EU and UK technical teams will work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding.”

Maros Sefcovic - Olivier Hoslet/Shutterstock

Maros Sefcovic – Olivier Hoslet/Shutterstock

There remain deep divisions between the UK and the EU over the protocol, including the continuation role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland.

Mr Cleverly, Mr Sefcovic and Chris Heaton Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, are now expected to talk again on January 16, which suggests a return to weekly talks after months of deadlock and occasional discussions.

Both sides said there would now be intensive negotiations to bridge other areas of disagreement over the treaty, which introduced border checks on British goods to prevent a hard Irish border after Brexit.

Agreement on database access is vital in order to lay the groundwork for an eventual Protocol deal based on removing border checks in exchange for bolstered market surveillance.

Brussels wants the access to better police whether British goods were crossing the invisible land border from Northern Ireland into Ireland. This would allow it to cut checks or react if British goods not being checked to ensure they meet EU standards are shown to be crossing the border.

The Government wants to cut the number of border checks faced by British goods crossing the Irish Sea because they have a chilling effect on trade. London argues that the checks are too burdensome because many goods and animals do not cross the border into Ireland, an EU member.

The European Commission had demanded real-time access to trade flow data from Britain to Northern Ireland. Sources said it was now satisfied with the quality of access after there was disagreement over whether the information was in real time or provided by companies or the Government.

Technical talks between officials over the database had continued since UK-EU relations improved after the resignation of Boris Johnson last year.

Micheál Martin, Ireland’s foreign secretary and former prime minister, welcomed the news of the breakthrough. He will travel to Brussels on Tuesday for talks with the commission.

Any eventual deal will also need to have the support of the DUP, which it has boycotted the restoration of Stormont after May elections because of its opposition to the protocol, which they fear is driving a wedge between them and the rest of the UK.

‘This is not a time for sticking plasters’

A DUP spokesperson said: “The Protocol caused the collapse of the NI executive, it must be replaced with arrangements that restore our place in the UK. This is not a time for sticking plasters. It’s time for a serious negotiation which deals with the fundamental problem.”

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, added: “I am committed to the restoration of Stormont, but such a restoration can only be durable if it is built on solid foundations which are supported by unionists and nationalists.”

Mr Heaton-Harris will meet with Northern Ireland’s major political parties on Wednesday. He has said he will call fresh Assembly elections on January 19 unless power-sharing is restored. Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, is also expected in Belfast before next week’s deadline.

However, the database breakthrough will raise expectations that the deadline will be extended to April 13, three days after Mr Biden’s planned visit for the Good Friday Agreement anniversary.

Before the database breakthrough, RTE reported officials were making contingency plans in case the April deadline was missed.

A political agreement on the broad outlines of a deal could be announced to buy time for more negotiations, the Irish broadcaster reported.

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, described progress on resolving the Protocol row as “pathetic” and said the data deal was “long overdue”.

“Rishi Sunak is failing to make real headway on the wider negotiations because he is too weak to stand up to the ERG in his party,” he said.

“With hard work and compromise on all sides, a deal is achievable to end this damaging, self-inflicted stand-off.”

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