New elections loom in Northern Ireland as Coveney says protocol row will not be resolved before deadline

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON — A comprehensive deal to fix the Northern Ireland protocol will not be secured ahead of an October 28 deadline despite fast-improving relations between the U.K. and EU sides, senior officials have confirmed.

Following high-level talks in London on Friday, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney praised a “real effort to reach out” by U.K. ministers over recent weeks but warned it was “completely unrealistic” to resolve all outstanding issues with the protocol before the end of the month.

Northern Irish unionists have refused to resume power-sharing arrangements at the Stormont Assembly until their concerns about the protocol are met, and by law the U.K. government is obliged to call fresh elections if a deal is not done between the Belfast parties by October 28.

“I don’t think we can get everything agreed in the space of three weeks, that is completely unrealistic,” Coveney said. “But the question is can we make progress that is measurable and serious in that period, where people can see we’re on a course that the people can start believing in?”

Negotiations between the U.K. and EU sides finally resumed this week after a lengthy hiatus, and Coveney’s remarks leave open the possibility that at least a partial agreement could yet be reached this month over at least one or more of the various areas of dispute.

In a further sign of warming relations, the U.K.’s newly appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris told the same press conference Friday that he hoped Britain would never need to use the controversial laws it intends to pass to unilaterally override parts of the protocol arrangement.

Heaton-Harris said the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is due to receive its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday, “will hopefully become a redundant piece of legislation” if the two sides reach a deal over the coming weeks.

“I want to be very positive about the chances of getting a negotiated solution. I believe we’re all working in good spirits, with good cooperation to deliver on the changes that are required for the protocol to be fixed or the issues within the protocol to be fixed,” Heaton-Harris said.

The two men were speaking after a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference at Lancaster House, alongside Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker and Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee.

The past week has seen EU and British officials exchanging warm and optimistic messages about the possibility of resolving the long-running row over post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade rules, with Baker personally apologizing to the Irish people for previous comments he has made about the issue.

Baker said the need for Western unity in response to the war in Ukraine, and next year’s 40th anniversary of the Good Friday / Belfast agreement, are two reasons why there must now be “transformation” in the British-Irish relationship.

In a joint statement, U.K. and Ireland agreed “to doing everything possible” to restore a powersharing executive in Northern Ireland by October 28, and “agreed on the importance of respecting” the Good Friday / Belfast peace agreement “in totality.” The next conference will take place in January 2023.