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

17 February 2023, 00:07 | Updated: 17 February 2023, 11:45

Sunak heads to Northern Ireland
Sunak heads to Northern Ireland. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is visiting Northern Ireland amid growing speculation that a deal between the UK and EU over the controversial post-Brexit protocol is imminent.

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Mr Sunak arrived in the region on Thursday night with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

He will hold talks with Stormont parties and other stakeholders over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Friday.

The Prime Minister last visited Northern Ireland in December - his latest visit suggesting a deal over the trading arrangements for the region could be on the cards within days.

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Mary Lou McDonald believes this is the 'defining' decade for the unification of Ireland.

A No10 spokeswoman 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.

She confirmed that Mr Sunak and Mr Heaton-Harris would be speaking to Northern Ireland political parties as part of the "engagement process".

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will meet European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on Friday morning.

A UK government spokesperson said: "The Foreign Secretary is travelling to Brussels to meet Vice President Sefcovic for talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

"This is part of their ongoing engagement and constructive dialogue with the EU to find practical solutions that work for the people of Northern Ireland."

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Speaking on Thursday evening, Irish Tanaiste Micheal Martin said negotiations over the protocol had been "serious and substantive".

However, a senior DUP figure has warned that a failure to end the imposition of EU law in Northern Ireland in any new UK/EU deal on post-Brexit trade will ensure Stormont's powersharing impasse continues.

Lord Nigel Dodds insisted his party would maintain its block on devolution if an agreement fell short.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill includes provisions that would remove the oversight of the European Court of Justice in the region.

While it is understood the EU and UK are close to signing off a deal that would reduce protocol red tape on the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, there is no expectation that Brussels is willing to agree to ending the application of EU law in the region.

The EU has argued that an important part of the protocol is dependent on the operation of EU rules in the region.