Varadkar ‘quietly confident’ that NI protocol deal can be reached within weeks
Irish premier Leo Varadkar has said “we’re not there yet” on a Northern Ireland protocol deal but added that he was “quietly confident” there could be an agreement within a fortnight.
The Taoiseach said that such an agreement would be a “big boost” for EU-UK relations, but also would achieve the “amazing prize” of re-establishing the Northern Ireland power-sharing institutions.
It comes as diplomatic efforts have been ramped up to solve problems with the implementation of the protocol; this included hastily-arranged meetings between British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the five main Stormont parties on Friday.
Although details of what was on offer were scant, soundings from the parties indicated a deal could be on the horizon.
Sir Jeffrey, the leader of the DUP has expressed hope that the UK and EU can strike a deal that addresses unionist concerns about Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
Commenting after meeting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Belfast, Sir Jeffrey said it appeared “real progress” had been made in negotiations between London and Brussels, but he cautioned that more work was needed to get a final deal “over the line”.
The protocol instead created economic barriers on trade being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It has proven to be deeply unpopular with unionists, who claim it has weakened Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, and the DUP has used a Stormont veto to collapse the powersharing institutions in protest at the arrangements.
The immediate future of devolution at Stormont therefore rests on whether or not the DUP is content with any new protocol deal.
Mr Varadkar said he would speak with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the weekend, and had spoken to some of the Northern Ireland parties on Thursday night and on Friday.
“I think a lot of progress is being made,” he told reporters in Limerick.
“We’re not there yet, but certainly a lot of trust has been built up between the European Commission and Ireland, and the British Government.
“I do believe the prospect is there of having an agreement possibly within a week.
“It’s not finalised, we haven’t all seen the final text yet, but we are getting there.
“I’m quietly confident that within the next week or two we could be in a position to sign off on agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and that would be a big boost, I think.
“First of all because it would allow us to normalise political and trading relationships between Britain and the European Union, including Ireland, putting an end to a very difficult period that started with the Brexit referendum.
“But most importantly, it opens the prospect of getting the assembly and executive up and running in Northern Ireland, so the people have a government functioning in Northern Ireland and have the Good Friday Agreement working again.”
Mr Varadkar has said “there’s a window of opportunity here now in the next few weeks” to reach a deal on the protocol that should be grasped by every side involved.
“When windows of opportunity disappear, sometimes they don’t reappear for quite some time.
“So I really hope that everyone in Ireland and Europe, in Britain and in Northern Ireland will seize this opportunity if it arises,” he said.
He added that part of the reason there has been progress is that the details have remained closely guarded.
“One of the things we have agreed is not to go into any of the details of what might be agreed, because I think part of the reason why we’ve managed to get to this point, why trust and confidence has been built up, is that this whole process has been confidential and private over the last couple of months.
“That has helped us to get to this point where there is this window of opportunity to have an agreement on the protocol; to put relations between Ireland and Britain and Europe back on a very positive footing; and most of all, that amazing prize that is now tantalisingly close, to get the assembly, the executive, the government in Northern Ireland back up and running, the Good Friday Agreement working as it was intended.”