Pro-UK party pessimistic about deal to restore N Ireland govt
January 12, 2023 08:53 PM
Northern Ireland's leading pro-UK party on Thursday rejected talk of progress over the territory's post-Brexit future, as the Irish premier visited Belfast to try to break a lengthy deadlock.
The devolved legislature in Belfast has been suspended since a walk-out by Jeffrey Donaldson's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) last February, in protest at trading rules agreed with the European Union.
"I don't think we are anywhere close to a deal," Donaldson told BBC radio after Northern Irish leaders met with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
"At the moment, while some progress has been made on some technical issues, there are major political issues in those negotiations that have not yet been addressed," Donaldson said.
Ireland's leader Leo Varadkar, accompanied by his deputy Micheal Martin, visited a day after the talks with Cleverly.
Martin said it was "unfortunate" that Cleverly declined to admit pro-Irish Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald to the roundtable meeting, in a dispute over diplomatic protocol.
After meeting Varadkar, McDonald expressed Sinn Fein's "absolute determination" to restore the power-sharing government in Belfast.
"We have also shared our strong view that a deal on the protocol is possible... and we believe that the window we now have has to be grasped with both hands," she told reporters.
Hopes have increased of an end to wrangling between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which unionists say threatens to cast it adrift from the rest of the country.
Failure to get the regional government back up and running by January 19 could usher in new elections, but so far the DUP and other unionist parties have stood firm in their opposition to the EU trade deal.
This week, London and Brussels said there had been a breakthrough deal to share customs data on goods being shipped across the Irish Sea from England, Scotland and Wales to Northern Ireland.
A potentially pivotal meeting is scheduled for next Monday between the UK and EU sides.
"We're now working intensively to scope (further) solutions," a European Commission spokesman said in Brussels, while Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said there was "still a way to go".
Northern Ireland, which has the UK's only land border with the EU, remains in the EU single market and customs union under the Protocol, unlike the rest of the country.
The land border must be kept open under the terms of a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence over British rule in Northern Ireland.
But that has stoked EU worries that goods that do not meet the bloc's regulations could get into the single market by the back door.
Varadkar spoke to EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday and said there was "good engagement" between London and Brussels in the talks.
His meetings in Northern Ireland will allow him to listen to all sides in the province, he added.