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Editorial: Hints of protocol progress

AFTER a prolonged period which saw relations between the British government and partners in Brussels and Dublin deteriorate alarmingly, recent days have hinted at more encouraging signs that progress can be made on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The reason for the change in atmosphere is clear: the departure of Boris Johnson and the particularly toxic brand of politics he peddled.

His brief tenure as prime minister was characterised by antagonism towards the EU.

Having propelled himself to power via the leave campaign and opposition to Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement, he then reneged on the Brexit deal he had himself negotiated.

And with his administration lurching from scandal to scandal, it was clear he was content to manufacture friction with Europe to shore up support with Eurosceptic MPs and newspaper publishers.

That process culminated in a collapse of negotiations and the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill earlier this year.

Ironically, it is the elevation to prime minister of the politician who tabled the protocol-busting legislation, Liz Truss, that holds out hope for a more constructive attitude towards Britain's largest trading partner.

The new Conservative leader can ill afford a ruinous trade war with Europe as she grapples with an unprecedented cost of living crisis.

It is clear that relations with the US will also sour if the government attempts to dismantle the protocol, with implications for a future transatlantic trade deal.

Ms Truss's initial speeches last week were notable for not mentioning the dispute and when asked about her intentions, she spoke of her preference for a negotiated solution, albeit one which achieved the aims of her bill.

For his part, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, has now welcomed those remarks and said Europe stands ready to work in an "open and constructive and intensive way" to resolve the impasse.

Mr Sefcovic has suggested that physical checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland could be cut to a "couple of lorries a day", rendering an Irish Sea trade border "invisible".

He also told how he was working with the US to show potential investors the unique competitive advantage the protocol offers Northern Ireland through dual access to UK and EU markets.

Much work clearly remains to be done before outstanding issues can be dealt with and relations put back on a positive footing. The tone being adopted by both sides does offer hope, however, that talks can now resume in a renewed spirit of co-operation and compromise.

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