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Editorial: Protocol ray of hope

AFTER the economic and political meltdown she has presided over this week, another attempt to unravel the Gordian knot of the Northern Ireland Protocol may now come as welcome relief to Liz Truss.

Yesterday brought the first encouraging news on that front for many months with indications that talks between UK and EU officials could resume next week.

It came after a videocall between Britain's new Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Brussels' chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic. Both men tweeted their shared commitment to seek solutions, in keeping with a change in mood that has been apparent since Ms Truss entered Downing Street.

Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney observed earlier this week that messages from London are "quite different from the messages we were getting a few months ago".

The prime minister herself has struck rigidly to the line that while she would prefer a negotiated solution, she is still prepared to proceed with legislation to unilaterally override the protocol.

The core problem remains that the British government wants to fundamentally change the terms of a binding agreement it signed less than three years ago, which requires checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border on the island.

The EU is determined to protect its single market and is unlikely to make major concessions to a prime minister who may not even survive the month, never mind two years until a general election.

However, there are reasons for hope that planets could be aligning to allow fresh negotiations to bear fruit.

Chief among them is the fact Liz that Truss, having taken a sledgehammer to what remains of the UK's reputation for fiscal competence, cannot now risk a potential trade conflict with the EU.

The US has also been exerting pressure on London to reach a deal, while the clock is counting down this month on a requirement to call an assembly election if the DUP is still refusing to form an executive.

Beyond that, there will be an eagerness to resolve issues before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which is likely to be accompanied by visits by senior political figures including US President Joe Biden.

It has always been the case that the protocol dispute would only be resolved by serious and patient negotiation in a spirit of partnership and good faith. That talks may finally be about to resume is a welcome ray of hope among some very dark economic clouds.



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