Gap getting 'larger' between UK and EU over Northern Ireland protocol, as both sides dig in over post-Brexit deal

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British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in Australia on January 21, 2022.
British Foreign Secretary Liz TrussBianca De Marchi-Pool / Getty Images
  • A former UK Brexit adviser warned that the gap between the EU and UK over Northern Ireland was getting "larger, not smaller".

  • While the "atmosphere and tone has improved", neither side has moved from their respective positions taken last year.

  • The Stormont elections - and a potential Conservative leadership contest - could also slow progress.

The gap between the UK and EU's positions over Northern Ireland is getting "larger, not smaller," a former UK Brexit adviser has warned, as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss began a new round of talks with her European counterpart.

The UK government wants to introduce significant changes to the Northern Ireland protocol — part of the Brexit deal which governs how goods move across the Irish border — but talks with Brussels remain deadlocked.

Raoul Ruparel, who advised former Prime Minister Theresa May on Brexit, said that while the "atmosphere and tone has improved", neither side had shown any willingness to compromise, leaving negotiators without much hope of reaching a deal.

"I'm increasingly of the view that these discussions will be overtaken by events regardless of what is or what is not agreed by the two sides," he added.

"Gaps between the two sides are actually probably if anything larger not smaller given differences over process as well as substance."

The forthcoming elections in Northern Ireland could make an agreement even harder, Ruparel added.

"Sinn Fein look likely to be largest party, with response from unionist parties very unpredictable. At best we may not see an NI Executive being formed for some time, at worst the institutional power sharing arrangements under GF/Belfast Agreement could be thrown into doubt," he tweeted.

Sam Lowe, a trade policy expert who has given evidence to MPs on the post-Brexit challenges, agreed with Ruparel.

"The combination of Stormont elections and a potential Conservative leadership challenge makes a speedy resolution to the Protocol issues unlikely, alas," he said.

Their comments come as Liz Truss, who took over the Brexit brief from Lord Frost after his shock resignation from government in December, arrived in Brussels for the latest round of talks with Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission.

Under the current terms, the protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods, which means lorries and goods passing into Northern Ireland face extensive checks when entering from Great Britain, which critics argue risls underminig the Good Friday Agreement and the UK's constitution.

Both the UK and EU have been trying to renegotiate the protocol since last year, with Downing Street repeatedly threatening to trigger Article 16 and up-end the entire agreement if a solution is not found.

The EU has refused to agree to the UK's proposals, but in October put forward its own proposals to ease problems with checks in the Irish Sea.

Truss and Šefčovič have agreed to try and secure a deal over the protocol by the end of February before campaigning starts for Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May. They met in the UK previously in January and agreed to "intensify" talks over the protocol.

Following Monday's talks, Sefovic said at a press conference after a bilateral meeting with Truss: "'If political goodwill is maintained our discussions could lead to a timely solution that would immediately and significantly help operators on the ground," The Sun reported.

He said the EU wouldn't set "artificial deadlines" but would "act with a sense of urgency."

Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Fein leader, held talks with Truss earlier in January and said she had been assured the protocol "is here to stay." However unionist leaders, who have called for the protocol to be ripped up and redrawn from the start, believe their concerns will be addressed.

Truss on Sunday urged the EU to agree on "practical solutions" during talks and said there was a "deal to be done."

She added: "Fundamentally this is about peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, represent the UK or EU, the focus must be on protecting the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and fixing the protocol."

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