Northern Ireland Protocol talks are heading for “more tunnels” after positive discussions over the post-Brexit trading arrangements, Ireland’s foreign minister said.
Simon Coveney predicted there would be intense UK-EU negotiations under media blackout – nicknamed “the tunnel” in earlier Brexit talks – after meeting with Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, at Hillsborough Castle.
Mr Heaton-Harris said that both men would work together to clinch a deal to cut customs checks on British goods crossing the Irish Sea border created by the Protocol.
“These discussions can move forward. I am really confident that they will move forward,” he said.
“The mood music that everybody talks about is seemingly very positive,” he said after talks with Mr Coveney, who he befriended when they were both MEPs in Brussels.
James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, is expected to have his first phone call with Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s negotiator, on Friday.
“There is a real opportunity now to reach lasting solutions,” Mr Coveney said at an event in Dublin.
“I hope sincerely that, with political leadership, we will see a move away from unilateral action and into a process that gets us to a negotiated solution. More tunnels. I suspect.”
The Protocol prevents the need for a potentially inflammatory hard land border between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland, an EU member, by moving checks to the Irish Sea. It also grants the country unique dual access to the UK and EU single markets.
However, the Government argued that the checks are too burdensome, while the Democratic Unionist Party is so against the Protocol that it boycotted the restoration of Stormont after May’s local elections, leaving Northern Ireland without a devolved government.
Unless there is a return to power sharing by Oct 28, Mr Heaton-Harris said that he would be forced by law to call fresh elections in Northern Ireland, which he added needed a functioning government to tackle the cost of living crisis.
A landing zone for the negotiations is likely to involve minimising checks in returns for assurances that no products not meeting EU standards will cross the land border into Ireland.
Mr Coveney said that getting rid of all checks was “an unreasonable and unrealistic ask by the British Government”.
But he thought the EU would be willing to go “a very long way” in accepting that British goods in Northern Ireland at low risk of crossing the border should be spared checks if there was real-time, comprehensive data-sharing on trade flows.
“So, if you’re talking about goods that are coming into Sainsbury’s, for example, in Northern Ireland, or Asda, those retail companies don’t even have outlets south of the border,” he added.
“I would love to see a negotiated outcome, but there appears to be little interest in either Brussels or Dublin to recognise the concerns of unionists,” said Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, who urged London to speed up the Bill handing ministers the power to override the treaty.