BELFAST (AFP) – United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday hailed “positive” talks on potential changes to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading rules, but said there was “more work to do” before reaching agreement with the European Union (EU).
The protocol on post-Brexit trading rules, signed between London and Brussels, keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market and customs union and stipulates checks on goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland.
That has proven deeply unpopular with the UK-run province’s unionist politicians, causing months of political deadlock.
London and Brussels have been negotiating for months to try to ease tensions over the trade arrangements, and Sunak visited Belfast on Friday to talk to local politicians, fuelling hopes that a breakthrough was imminent.
“I had positive conversations with political parties in Northern Ireland, about our ongoing discussions to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol,” Sunak told British broadcasters.
“Now there’s more work to do, and that’s why my ministerial colleagues and I will continue talking to the European Union intensely to find solutions,” he added. Shortly before Sunak’s comments, Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he believed an agreement was close.
“I’m quietly confident that within the next week or two we could be in a position to sign off an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom,” he told Irish broadcaster RTE.
Sunak arrived in Belfast on Thursday and held brief individual meetings on Friday with leaders of the main Stormont parties, ending with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
He was trying to persuade the parties to back changes to the trading conditions agreed with Brussels. Emerging from the meetings, politicians were cautiously optimistic.
“Clearly this is a big moment,” Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP told journalists.
“I think that progress has been made across a range of issues and we welcome that. But I think there are still some areas where final agreement with the EU is still outstanding.”
Donaldson added: “We’ve not yet seen the final text of an agreement.”