Truss talks with EU leaders lift hopes of end to Northern Ireland deadlock

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109 shares, 170 points

Liz Truss travels to Prague for talks with European leaders on Thursday, adding to hopes that a diplomatic reconciliation between the EU and UK could help break post-Brexit political deadlock in Northern Ireland.

Truss will attend a meeting of a new pan-European security grouping, in the first formal meeting of a British prime minister with EU27 leaders since Brexit took effect in January 2020, to discuss energy security, Ukraine and migration.

She is also expected to use the meeting, which will be attended by non-EU states including Ukraine, as a chance to informally raise the prospects of a deal over post-Brexit trading relations in Northern Ireland.

Pressure to reach an agreement is mounting. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, has said he will call new elections to the region’s Stormont assembly on October 28 unless pro-UK unionist politicians end their boycott of the region’s power-sharing executive.

British ministers have urged the Democratic Unionist party, which opposes the so-called Northern Ireland protocol governing post-Brexit trading arrangements, to use the start of fresh talks as a moment to return to power-sharing.

“Officials are already working hard on this. The DUP could rejoin the executive on the basis that we are working flat out to get an agreement that works for everyone,” a UK official said.

But the DUP, which opposes the protocol because it divides the UK’s internal market, has warned it will not move without evidence of concrete progress towards meeting their demands of scrapping a customs border in the Irish Sea. Senior party insiders say it was “hard to see” as things stood how the party could return to Stormont before October 28.

“There won’t be a Stormont government until this issue is resolved, that’s the circumstances we find ourselves in,” former party leader Edwin Poots told RTÉ radio this week.

DUP figures believe that if the government does call an election, the party will not suffer significant losses.

Still, UK ministers want to try and build momentum for a DUP return by restarting intense rounds of talks, known as the “tunnel”, in coming weeks. EU officials said the two or three-day sessions will deal with the “easier” issues first, including the key question of border checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

More contentious topics, including the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, would be dealt with in a second phase of talks.

European diplomats say that Truss’s participation in the Prague summit had improved the atmosphere surrounding the Northern Ireland issue. “The mood is much better,” confirmed one British cabinet minister.

But EU and UK officials cautioned that significant differences on substance remained, particularly over the role of the ECJ as the final arbiter of disputes over the deal. The UK claims the court is one-sided and impinges on British sovereignty.

When asked about the issue of ECJ oversight of the protocol, foreign secretary James Cleverly told a fringe event at the Tory party conference that the UK government would not accept Northern Ireland having a reduced position in the union. “It’s there on the front of the box: ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and we are not going to put that last bit in parenthesis,” he said.

The continued threat of the Truss government to pass legislation to unilaterally rip up the Northern Ireland trade deal if talks break down continues to loom over the process. The prime minister made no mention of the protocol in her conference speech on Wednesday.

“Leaving a loaded gun on the table does not do a whole lot to build trust,” said one EU diplomat.

But pressure for an agreement is also coming from Washington. President Joe Biden is urging Truss to resolve the issue speedily and promising a wave of investment in the region if a deal is done, US officials have said.

The White House has also raised the prospect of a state visit to Ireland and the UK next year to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement peace deal, which the US helped to broker in 1998.

However, the DUP has said it will not change its stance in the face of US pressure. “Unless something radical happens and the EU decide to become a bit more realistic, then he’ll be coming over to the funeral of the Good Friday Agreement, not to a celebration of its 25th anniversary,” Poots warned.

Source: Financial Times

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