Republic of Ireland news

UK-EU protocol talks ‘will continue' if snap Stormont election called, Secretary of State says

Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
David Young, PA

Talks between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol would not be shelved if a snap Stormont election was called, the secretary of state has said.

Chris Heaton-Harris said negotiations to break the impasse over the contentious post-Brexit Irish Sea trading arrangements will continue “no matter what”.

The Northern Ireland Secretary also warned Assembly members that he will look at cutting their pay if they fail to form a functioning Executive before next week’s deadline.

The DUP has blocked the formation of a fully functioning ministerial executive since May’s Assembly election as part of its protest against the protocol.

The party has made clear it will not re-engage with powersharing until economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are removed.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and senior party colleagues held talks with Prime Minister Liz Truss on the issue at Downing Street this afternoon.

If a devolved administration is not established by the October 28 deadline, Mr Heaton-Harris has made clear he will fulfil his legislative obligation to call another Assembly election, with December 15 emerging as the likely date.

The Conservative MP held talks with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney today in Belfast.

Afterwards, Mr Coveney said it was clear Mr Heaton-Harris was “not bluffing” on his intention to call an election.

The UK Government minister, who said he would announce the election date “immediately” after the deadline passes, said London and Brussels had been trying to assure the DUP it could re-enter powersharing confident that both sides were working constructively to find a solution on the protocol.

The UK Government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.

Relations between the UK and the EU appear to have improved since Ms Truss became prime minister, and London and Brussels have been talking up the potential for a deal through fresh negotiations.

A previous round of talks between the EU and the UK were paused ahead of the last Assembly election in the spring, with both sides acknowledging that continuing the process amid a potentially polarising campaign could be counterproductive.

Mr Heaton-Harris suggested a different approach would be adopted if another election was called.

“The talks between the UK Government and the European Union will continue no matter what,” he told reporters in Belfast.

“They might move on. As you have probably detected, I’m a glass half full man on these matters and I know the talks are going ahead in good faith and good spirit and good humour. So I’m confident they will continue.

“Everyone’s been trying to demonstrate that these are talks that are happening and being positive about getting outcomes to demonstrate that hopefully, to the people, the unionist community here, that their politicians can go back into the executive because things are moving in this space.

“I’m not in charge of the negotiations – that’s James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary – but I fully expect those talks to continue.”

Asked when he would look to cut MLA pay if the powersharing impasse continued, Mr Heaton Harris added: “When we get to doing all the making sure that the budget works, should there not be an executive formed I have an opportunity then to look at that.”

The Northern Ireland Secretary was also asked whether he had contemplated the potential of the DUP agreeing to reform an executive for a brief period, only to leave it again almost immediately. That tactic would potentially reset the clock on the six-month legislative deadline for calling an election.

“If it was legal, then I’d have to look at that,” he said.

Mr Heaton-Harris said if a poll was called he would expect the campaign to be dominated by issues such as health waiting lists and the cost of living.

He said the rollout of government mitigation schemes, such as non-domestic energy support payments, was being hindered by the lack of a functioning executive.

“It’d be much easier for me to do that with a functioning executive that was working,” he said.

Earlier, Mr Coveney insisted the EU was prepared to respond “comprehensively” to unionist concerns over the protocol.

He said negotiations were continuing in a “positive light” but an imminent breakthrough was unlikely given the domestic difficulties facing the UK Government at Westminster.

Mr Coveney said the UK and Irish governments wanted to avoid an “unnecessary election” as he warned that an electoral campaign could make it more difficult for London and Brussels to strike a deal on the protocol.

The minister said the ability to avert an election rested with Northern Ireland’s political parties, in particular the DUP, as he urged all sides to come together and form an executive before the deadline.

“Let me reassure you that the EU is absolutely listening to and willing to respond comprehensively to the concerns that have been raised by the business community, and also by unionist representatives,” Mr Coveney told a peace-building event in north Belfast.

“The Irish Government, despite what’s sometimes said and written, has no hidden agenda, I can promise you that.

“We want an agreed way forward between the UK and the EU on the issues that have been raised around the protocol in a way that works for Northern Ireland.”

Speaking to reporters after the event, Mr Coveney added: “I think the chances of a major breakthrough between London and Brussels between now and the 28th of October is very unlikely. Not because both sides don’t want to move forward, but because there are a lot of other things happening in British politics, that I think is very obvious for people to see over the last week and continuing into this week.

“And there simply isn’t the bandwidth, in my view, to get the kind of step forward that certainly we had hoped for a few weeks ago before the 28th.

“And so what I’m saying to people is that the negotiations will continue. I think they’re happening in a positive light.

“I think the British Government and the EU are working through complex issues with a view to trying to get accommodation with each other and find a way of getting an agreement that both sides can commit to before the end of the year.

“But I think now political leaders in Northern Ireland will need to make choices, because of course there is no reason why the executive can’t be formed tomorrow or the next day.

“Four of the five parties want to do that. And what I’d say to the DUP is that I hope they will reflect on the needs of Northern Ireland in the context of serious negotiations that are ongoing towards trying to find a resolution on the protocol issues.”