There is now a “window of opportunity” to fix the issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, says the Irish prime minister.
Speaking after the British-Irish Council summit in Blackpool, Michael Martin said relations between the UK and EU had “improved very significantly”, and both he and British PM Rishi Sunak wanted to resolve the problems “in a harmonious way”.
Last night, Mr Sunak also said he believed that “goodwill and pragmatism” would lead to a negotiated solution.
Warm words will need to turn into action for the long-standing dilemma to be resolved.
The protocol is part of the post-Brexit trade agreement between the UK and EU, aiming to prevent a hard border being reintroduced on the island of Ireland.
But instead, it created a trade barrier in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, leading to more checks on goods travelling within the UK.
While many parties in Northern Ireland remain supportive of the measure, Unionists argue it threatens their place within the UK, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is refusing to re-join the power-sharing agreement in Stormont until it is scrapped – meaning there is no functioning government.
Talks between the UK and EU have gone on for months, but a solution has yet to be found, and the British government has brought forward the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in parliament, which would scrap parts of the protocol unilaterally – much to the anger of the bloc.
However, at a press conference after the two-day summit – and after a meeting with Mr Sunak – the Irish PM struck a positive tone, saying: “It is my assessment that the window of opportunity now does exist, a space now exists to resolve the outstanding issues pertaining to the protocol by negotiation.”
‘The relationship between PM and I has improved significantly’
Mr Martin would not put a timeline on negotiations, only saying it should be fixed “as soon as possible”, and that there would need to be “momentum” and a “substantive engagement” between the EU and UK.
But he added: “I think the relationship, certainly between the prime minister and I and both governments, has improved very significantly.
“And I think we’re both of a mind – with our colleagues in the European Union – to get this issue resolved in a harmonious way.
“And I think the meeting over these two days has again reinforced the importance of all of us working together on shared challenges and shared issues.”
Michael Gove, who is the UK’s intergovernmental relations minister, also said he was “optimistic” about a solution, although he was unaware of any plans to pause the protocol bill in the Commons.
He added: “The discussions that the prime minister had with all colleagues here about the importance of finding a safe landing zone I think were conducted in a cordial and constructive fashion.”