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EU, UK announce talks on Northern Ireland post-Brexit

February 26, 2023

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have jointly announced in-person talks, in London on Monday. This comes amid long-running post-Brexit negotiations on Northern Ireland.

 A general view of waiting lorries in the container terminal in Belfast Port. On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland.
Some in Northern Ireland oppose the current deal which involves checks on goods entering Northern Ireland's ports from elsewhere in the UK, though others see the special status as essentialImage: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The EU and UK released a curt press statement on Sunday evening, saying that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen would meet in person in London on Monday. 

"Today, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak agreed to continue their work in person towards shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland," the joint statement said.

This comes amid long-running talks on the terms of Northern Ireland's special status after Brexit and comments from both sides suggesting that progress was being made in the negotiations. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had told newspaper The Sunday Times that he would be "giving it everything" through the weekend in the hope of reaching a deal. 

"If we want to restore the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland, which I very much want to do and I think that's what people need and deserve, then we need to resolve the issues of the Protocol," Sunak said. 

He said the shooting of a police officer this week, likely by a separatist paramilitary group, "reminds us of the delicate situation in Northern Ireland, the fragility of it, and we shouldn't take it for granted. And that's why getting power-sharing up  and running is really important." 

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had also voiced optimism on the talks making progress. 

"Certainly the deal isn't done yet," Varadkar told broadcaster RTE at the weekend. "But I do think we are inching towards conclusion."

Brexit regret, or Bregret, spreads in UK

What were the talks about? 

The British government and EU negotiators have been in talks for some time looking to agree on alterations to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This is the name for the post-Brexit rules for Northern Ireland that allow the country to effectively remain part of the EU single market, via its open border with the Republic of Ireland, at the expense of having to check some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

It also entails Brussels having control of some so-called "level playing field" issues like VAT or sales tax rates and state subsidy policies.

Why has power-sharing in NI's legislature stopped? 

The contentious special status for Northern Ireland is both praised and despised in the divided country. 

Unionists who support Northern Ireland being part of the UK argue the deal is an unacceptable loss of sovereignty and equal status with England, Scotland and Wales. 

The country's second-largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is refusing to participate in the power-sharing government in Stormont in Northern Ireland, saying the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol are the reason for this.

That said, it's not clear whether the DUP will see any deal struck by Sunak's government as satisfactory. 

Meanwhile, the largest republican party Sinn Fein, which advocates a reunified Ireland, sees Northern Ireland's special status under the Brexit deal as a necessary guarantor for the 1990s Good Friday peace deal that broadly ended decades of sectarian conflict. 

Sunak trying to establish himself as bilateral problem-solver

Since taking office late last year, Sunak — himself a lifelong advocate of Brexit — has said he would try to find a bilateral agreement with Brussels to improve the situation in Northern Ireland and break the political deadlock there. 

He's argued that the deadlock was hurting the UK's ties with the EU and even the US, which has often stressed the importance of a post-Brexit status quo that upholds the Northern Irish peace deal's terms, most notably including an open border on the island of Ireland. 

Before him, Boris Johnson's government had been threatening to unilaterally stop abiding by some terms of the Protocol, while Liz Truss' few weeks in office last summer were so fleeting that a desired direction of travel barely had time to emerge. 

msh/jcg (Reuters, AFP)