Rishi Sunak says there is still work to do on Brexit deal

'We have not got a deal yet,' British PM says

From left, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill at talks on Friday. Photo: Mary Lou McDonald / Twitter
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A deal between Britain and the EU has not yet been agreed to, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Friday.

After negotiations were held in Northern Ireland, Mr Sunak said “there’s work to do” to reach an agreement with the EU and that no deal has been struck as yet.

Mr Sunak had hoped to end the deadlock over trade with Europe during talks with political leaders in Northern Ireland to gain support for his Brexit deal.

“Today I had positive conversations with political parties in Northern Ireland about our ongoing discussions to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol,” Mr Sunak said.

“There's work to do. We have not got a deal yet. That's why both the Foreign Secretary and I, but also the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will continue talking to the European Union to try and find solutions to protect Northern Ireland's place in our internal market and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”

He is expected to meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference where he will speak about Ukraine's military needs.

Mr Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris were meeting politicians near Belfast on Friday, amid growing speculation that there could be a deal within days on the post-Brexit trading arrangement.

He is then expected to travel to the Munich Security Conference where he would hope to hold talks with French and German leaders, plus the European Commission's Ursula von der Leyen.

The UK and the EU have been embroiled in negotiations over the workings of the protocol, agreed to ensure the free movement of goods across the Irish land border after Brexit.

The flurry of diplomacy fuelled expectations that a deal to improve the post-Brexit trading arrangements for the province could be finalised within days.

There is speculation the Prime Minister could brief his cabinet on the deal and announce it in Parliament on Tuesday.

In another apparent sign of progress, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will travel to Brussels for a meeting with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.

Irish leader Leo Varadkar has said “we’re not there yet” on the deal but added that he was “quietly confident” there could be an agreement within two weeks.

The Taoiseach said that such an agreement would be a “big boost” for EU-UK relations, but also would achieve the “amazing prize” of re-establishing the Northern Ireland power-sharing institutions.

The protocol is deeply unpopular with unionists and the Democratic Unionist Party has collapsed the power-sharing institutions at Stormont in protest at the arrangements.

Mr Sunak faces an uphill task to bring the DUP on board.

However, the leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said on Friday that progress had been made.

“I think it is safe to say that progress has been made across a range of areas, while there are still some areas where further work is required,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said after talks with Mr Sunak.

“I do not believe that anyone should be led by a calendar. What is … most important here is getting it right. That must be the ultimate goal,” he added. “I think there are still some areas where final agreement with the EU is still outstanding.”

Irish deputy PM Micheal Martin said he believes there is a “distance to go yet” before a deal between the UK and the EU is over the line.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said there were clear signs of progress on the protocol and that it was “very much game on”.

“It’s clear now that significant progress has been made and we’re very heartened by that,” she said after meeting with Mr Sunak for the first time.

“I think we’ve all seen in recent weeks certainly an upping of the pace of political engagement and activity. That, to our mind, is a very, very positive thing. It’s absolutely necessary that there is intensive goodwill, good faith work done between the parties.”

Emerging from his meeting with Mr Sunak, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Prime Minister had given “scant” detail on the potential deal with the EU.

He said he believed that Mr Sunak was “ticking the box” of engaging with the Stormont parties.

After meeting with the Prime Minister, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said details on a potential deal were not outlined.

“We are in that position where we could have something next week, but it may be another couple of weeks yet,” he said on the prospects of an agreement.

A number 10 spokeswoman earlier said that the Prime Minister was meeting Northern Ireland parties as part of the “engagement process”.

She added: “Whilst talks with the EU are ongoing, ministers continue to engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.”

The Foreign Office also confirmed Mr Cleverly’s Brussels meeting with Mr Sefcovic, saying it was part of “ongoing engagement and constructive dialogue with the EU to find practical solutions that work for the people of Northern Ireland”.

Mr Martin said he believed the UK government wanted a consultation with the Northern Ireland parties on the negotiations.

He told RTE: “I think there is a distance to go yet. I don’t understate the challenges, but clearly the negotiations have been serious and substantive and trust has built up between the EU team and the UK team, but I think there is some time to go yet.”

Senior figures in the DUP and the European Research Group of the Tory party have warned that any deal must remove the oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland as well as dealing with trading difficulties.

While it is understood the EU and the UK are close to signing off a deal that would reduce protocol red tape on the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, there is no expectation that Brussels is willing to agree to end the application of EU law in the region.

The EU says a fundamental plank of the protocol ― namely that Northern Ireland traders can sell freely into the European single market ― is dependent on the operation of EU rules in the region.

Deputy chairman of the ERG David Jones tweeted on Thursday: “The protocol won’t be fixed by displaying green and red signs and pretending the ECJ hasn’t got supreme jurisdiction in Northern Ireland when it manifestly has.

“NI must cease to be subject to laws made in Brussels. It’s as simple as that. Anything less won’t work.”

Updated: February 18, 2023, 5:29 AM