Northern Ireland

Gaps remain but EU and UK will continue to work for potential protocol solutions

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic

GAPS remain between the EU and British government over a resolution to the protocol dispute but both sides yesterday vowed to continue "scoping work" in an effort to break the deadlock.

Virtual talks between European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly ended without any significant movement – a notable contrast to last week's progress, best illustrated by agreement on trade data sharing and a flurry of diplomatic activity.

There had been speculation ahead of the afternoon meeting, which was also attended by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, that the two sides were edging towards a breakthrough. However, a joint statement issued afterwards simply promised that the search for "potential solutions" would continue.

Downing Street said there were "still gaps", while DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described the difference in thinking as "significant".

The joint statement said a "range of existing challenges" had been discussed, along with the "need to find solutions together".

It was agreed that any solution needed to "tackle comprehensively the real-life concerns" across the north's communities, while protecting both the region's place in the UK's internal market and the integrity of the EU's Single Market.

"They agreed that this scoping work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit, taking careful account of each other's legitimate interests," it said.

It remained unclear last night when the next scheduled meeting will take place.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin welcomed what he termed "continued positive engagement", saying the two sides were working "together constructively to find joint solutions".

Before yesterday's meeting had concluded British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's official spokesman said that "there are still gaps in our position that need to be resolved in order to address the full range of problems created by the protocol".

Speaking to the PA news agency, a different British government source said: "Nobody should be under any illusions that this is complex and difficult but the desire to work together on a solution seems to be there."

In statement, Sir Jeffrey said there was a "long road to travel".

"We have reminded both sides that progress has only ever been achieved in Northern Ireland when supported by both unionists and nationalists."

The Lagan Valley MP said it was "not a time for sticking plasters".

"It’s time for a serious negotiation which deals with the fundamental problem," he said.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said the EU-UK statement was "much more low-key" than many had anticipated.

"I would implore both the UK government and the European Union not to become tempted to agree a deal simply to conclude negotiations, and rather focus on taking time to find a deal that provides long lasting solutions to the range of problems caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol," he said.

“Northern Ireland’s place with the United Kingdom’s internal market must be restored and protected – sticking plaster solutions will not cut it."