Progress made on Northern Ireland Protocol but substantive issues remain, Sunak says

Irish PM says British leader needs 'time and space' to fix the trade agreement

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Germany. PA
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Good progress has been made in resolving a dispute over Northern Ireland's post-Brexit trading rules, but substantive issues remain, a representative for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday.

“We agree that significant progress has been made,” the representative told reporters.

“I think the Prime Minister has been very clear that there are still substantive issues that need to be resolved with EU.”

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg accused Mr Sunak of imitating Theresa May's doomed Brexit strategy, as Tory Eurosceptics were urged to allow the “time and space” needed to fix the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The prominent Brexiteer questioned why “so much political capital” was being spent on brokering a new deal without ensuring the Democratic Unionist Party and his wing of the Conservative Party were on board.

Negotiators could “see the finishing line” for a deal as fresh high-level talks were arranged with the EU amid warnings of potential ministerial resignations over any deal.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was unsure whether a breakthrough could come this week, but said a “huge amount of progress has been made”, as he called for Mr Sunak to be given “some time and space” so he can consult with the Conservatives.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outside Number 10 Downing Street in London. Reuters

Health minister Maria Caulfield, a Brexiteer who quit Ms May's front bench over her Chequers plan, urged colleagues to “support the Prime Minister”.

“There isn't a deal done yet so all these rumours about ministers or MPs not being happy,” she told Times Radio. “I haven't seen the details — we have to give the Prime Minister that time and space to get these negotiations done.

“We need to give him the time and space to thrash out the final elements of any final deal.”

But Mr Rees-Mogg, a former cabinet minister and long-term critic of Mr Sunak, criticised his tactics as similar to those that eventually led to the resignation of Ms May as prime minister.

He joined Boris Johnson in urging Mr Sunak to press ahead with the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, effectively ripping up parts of the agreement with Brussels, rather than seeking a deal which may not guarantee the return of a power-sharing executive in Stormont.

But in a new rift in the Tory party, former justice secretary Robert Buckland wrote in an article published in The House magazine that the bill “no longer has any legal justification” now the situation has “dramatically” changed.

Jacob Rees-Mogg arrives in Downing Street in London before a cabinet meeting. PA

On his ConservativeHome podcast, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “There seems to me to be no point in agreeing a deal that does not restore power-sharing.

“That must be the objective. If it doesn't achieve that objective, I don't understand why the government is spending political capital on something that won't ultimately succeed.”

He said the bill has the support of “the person who had a mandate from the British voters” — Mr Johnson — and he said Mr Sunak should first get the approval of the European Research Group of Conservative Eurosceptics.

“I don't know why so much political capital has been spent on something without getting the DUP and the ERG onside first,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

It was “very similar to what happened with Theresa May”, wherein a policy would be presented in the hope that people would “conveniently fall in behind” it, he said.

“Life doesn't work like that. It's important to get support for it first before you finalise the details and that doesn't seem to have been done here.”

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris were to hold fresh video talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic on Tuesday afternoon.

Before the meeting, Mr Sefcovic said: “We clearly can see the finishing line, but in such a negotiation being close doesn't mean being done.”

Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is welcomed by European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. AFP

The trio held “productive” talks on Monday and the EU said they still plan to meet for scheduled face-to-face talks later this week.

Government insiders still believe a deal could be struck in the coming days, but acknowledged it would slip to next week if not concluded by the first anniversary of the Ukrainian conflict on Friday.

Mr Sunak told his cabinet meeting “intensive negotiations with the EU continue on resolving the issues with the way the protocol was being enforced”, Downing Street said.

“Negotiations have progressed and that is to be welcomed, but there still remain a number of unresolved issues,” the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

“And as is the nature of these negotiations, it is often some of the more long-lasting challenges that need to be addressed as you get to this point, and that's not unusual.”

The spokesman disputed Mr Rees-Mogg's suggestion that the DUP and ERG should have been brought into discussions earlier, saying: “We have been speaking to relevant parties at the appropriate times throughout this process.

“Engagement will continue as we continue to negotiate, emphasising there are still intensive negotiations ongoing. There is no finished deal.”

Updated: February 21, 2023, 10:11 PM