'Game on': Sinn Fein President hails 'significant progress' after Northern Ireland protocol talks with Sunak

17 February 2023, 12:51

Rishi Sunak arrived in Northern Ireland on Thursday evening to discuss a protocol deal
Rishi Sunak arrived in Northern Ireland on Thursday evening to discuss a protocol deal. Picture: Sinn Fein/Getty
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

The President of Sinn Fein has hailed the "significant progress" she says has been made as Rishi Sunak attempts to modify the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Sunak has been meeting Northern Ireland's main political parties as he attempts to reach an agreement over the protocol, while Foreign Secretary James Cleverly meets EU leaders in Brussels.

The current protocol, negotiated by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Lord David Frost, has been at the centre of political tensions in Northern Ireland.

The current agreement means items arriving into the country from Great Britain must be checked by the EU.

But Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she believes "very, very significant progress has been made" and said a deal seemed "absolutely possible".

"I think the British Prime Minister is here to see what everybody thinks and to listen to all perspectives," she said after meeting with Mr Sunak.

"The DUP talk about their tests. But, you know, there's one bigger test for everyone. And that's the test of what people expect.

"There will be a test for everyone. The test will be are you prepared to govern? Are you prepared to share power on the basis of equality? And everybody concerned is going to face that test, we believe, fairly soon."

Read More: Rishi Sunak in Northern Ireland for last-ditch Brexit talks before 'imminent' deal

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She added: "It was a very constructive meeting and it was my first occasion to meet the Prime Minister, but I look forward to many further engagements with him."

Not all leaders met with the same level of confidence, with the Ultra Unionist Party (UUP) suggest "there is a way to go yet" before a deal is struck.

Rishi Sunak meeting with Sinn Fein
Rishi Sunak meeting with Sinn Fein. Picture: Sinn Fein

UUP leader Doug Beattie said: "I will take what he said to me, he said 'there's a way to go yet', is what he said, his words," he told reporters.

"That doesn't mean that things won't move quickly, that he did say there's a way to go yet, so that tells me that a deal has not been finalised."

He added: "Really, all he said was things are moving quicker than he probably anticipated them actually moving. But when he says there's still some way to go, that sort of tells me that we could be talking next week, that doesn't mean it will be next week, it could be the week after."

Sources close to the action have suggested a deal could be struck as early as next week, but there is no official suggestion an announcement will take place.

Read more: Secret summit to discuss 'why Brexit is not delivering' attended by Michael Gove and Labour frontbenchers

A No10 spokeswoman previously said: "Whilst talks with the EU are ongoing, ministers continue to engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland's place in the UK's internal market."

Mr Sunak has also been meeting with the Democratic Unionist Party, which has taken longer than expected.

Earlier today, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said it was "fundamental" that Northern Ireland was not separated legally from the rest of the UK.

The Northern Ireland protocol has been a contentious issue for the home nation
The Northern Ireland protocol has been a contentious issue for the home nation. Picture: Getty

Asked if that is what he is calling for, he said: "It would ensure that Brexit actually applied to Northern Ireland, it would ensure that the UK Government had sovereignty over this part of the United Kingdom and that Northern Ireland was not separated legally from the rest of the United Kingdom as a result of the protocol."

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has suggested it would lend Mr Sunak votes he needed to get a Protocol deal through Parliament if necessary.

Tory MP Sir Charles Walker defends the PM's 'natural' skill to deal with the NI protocol.

Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed said: "We'll wait and see what the Government is coming forward with. It's very important for everybody in the United Kingdom that this problem is resolved.

"It's a problem that is of this Government's own making, of course."

He added: "Labour wants this problem fixed, so we are prepared to give Rishi Sunak the additional votes he needs to get this through Parliament and it's important that the Prime Minister works with the Labour Party rather than listen to the extremists in his own ranks who do not want to resolve this problem that has caused a division inside our United Kingdom."

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