Editorial: Protocol progress vital
COULD the latest developments around the Northern Ireland Protocol really provide a basis for a wider deal that would finally untie the Gordian knot and facilitate a return to devolution at Stormont?
Agreement was reached on Monday allowing the EU access to UK computer systems to provide information about goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.
While not resolving the major issues at dispute between London and Brussels, a joint statement said the understanding was "a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance, and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions".
The direct engagement of European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, British foreign secretary James Cleverly and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris was encouraging, and the positive tone is certainly a refreshing change from the rancour that characterised engagement under Boris Johnson.
It is hoped these discussions could eventually lead to a broader agreement that would address concerns about disruption to trade across the Irish Sea.
Tánaiste Micheál Martin said it was a "very significant building block" and he believes issues can be resolved through negotiation.
Some major caveats apply, however.
The row over the protocol began almost as soon as it was signed and progress since then has been painfully slow.
The prospect of the EU and UK resolving all outstanding issues in time for the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, allowing a potential visit by US President Joe Biden, seem optimistic.
There is also a major question mark over whether any agreement would be enough for the DUP to end its boycott of Stormont.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, under pressure from extreme elements within unionism, has shown no sign of resiling from his position that the protocol must be replaced by arrangements that "restore Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market".
Mr Cleverly will be in Belfast today to meet with political parties and business leaders to discuss the impact of the protocol. Mr Heaton-Harris will also take part in the talks.
Speaking ahead of the visit, the foreign secretary said there is a need to address issues that "undermine the place of Northern Ireland in the UK".
The parties will also meet with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Labour leader Keir Starmer this week, with leaders in London, Brussels and Dublin due to keep talking over the coming weeks.
It is vital that these talks are allowed to continue in a spirit of good faith and positivity to ensure the protocol issue can finally be removed from the path of wider political progress.