Northern Ireland news

Protocol talks to intensify amid growing hopes of a deal

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic (left) will hold virtual talks Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris (centre) and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly

TALKS between the EU and British government are expected to intensify in the coming days amid increased hopes that a deal on the protocol is within reach.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic is today expected to hold virtual talks British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris.

The engagement follows two significant breakthroughs in the protocol deadlock last week.

The EU-UK agreement on trade data sharing and Westminster legislation enabling the building of border control posts at the north's ports are regarded as key in creating the circumstances for a deal.

However, it is expected that any imminent announcement will be a political agreement, with technicalities to be resolved over the coming weeks.

An early breakthrough would keep alive hopes that devolution could be restored by April's 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, potentially paving the way for a visit to the north by President Biden.

Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews yesterday spoke of an "expectation" that a "political declaration" could emerge out of today's EU-UK meeting.

"Not an internationally binding agreement, but a political declaration and framework for the way forward," he told Times Radio.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said further progress in the negotiations was necessary this week, as he urged the two sides to adopt a "quicker pace".

He said a "pragmatic approach" was required by both sides and the Stormont parties.

"Attempts to frame the protocol as a constitutional threat with demands to scrap it in order to save the union, while holding the assembly to ransom, are not only wrong but counterproductive," the North Down MP said.

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole said the north required "three things to work" – power-sharing institutions, special arrangements to manage Brexit, and "equality and inclusion in our society".

"But instead, if we see a continued political impasse and the collapse of the assembly, the outcome will be direct rule with an Irish dimension, growing arguments that Northern Ireland can’t work, and an accelerated debate on constitutional change," he said.

"Some elements within unionism are in danger of yet another huge own goal with the current approach."

Shadow secretary of state Peter Kyle acknowledged that progress had been made in recent days but argued that negotiations should have been concluded "in a matter of weeks, not years".

"So we really need to get round the table and negotiate," he said.