LONDON (AP) — Britain’s foreign minister met politicians and businesspeople in Belfast bearing good news Wednesday: The U.K. and the European Union are inching closer to settling a post-Brexit trade dispute that brought economic headaches and political turmoil to Northern Ireland.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly traveled to Belfast two days after Britain and the EU struck a data-sharing agreement that will give the EU access to real-time information about goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.
The two sides said the agreement is “a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance” — elements that have been in short supply since Britain withdrew from the EU in 2020 — and provided “a new basis for EU-U.K. discussions.”
Cleverly and chief EU negotiator Maroš Šefčovič said officials from the two sides would “work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding.”
The British government denied the two sides were in the home stretch toward a deal but said the talks had taken an “important step forward.”
Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris nonetheless faced a tough audience. As part of the island that includes the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member nation. British unionist politicians there are fiercely opposed to post-Brexit trading arrangements known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
When the U.K. left the bloc, the British government and the EU agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.
Instead, there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. Unionists say the new trade border undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. They are boycotting Belfast’s power-sharing government, leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning administration for most of the past year.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party that is refusing to share power with the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein, warned that “the protocol was not, is not and will not be supported by unionists.”
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, refused to meet the British delegation because party leader Mary Lou McDonald, a lawmaker in the Irish parliament in Dublin, had been excluded. Britain said Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill was invited.
“Sinn Fein were very welcome," Cleverly said. “My meeting here this morning was to meet with the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. I will, of course, be going to Ireland in the near future and I’ll be meeting Irish politicians.”
Cleverly said Wednesday's meetings had allowed him to hear "serious concerns about the protocol, the impact it is having on people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”
"I’ll be continuing to negotiate with the European Commission to try and address the issues that have been raised both by the political representatives here, but also the business representatives that I have been talking to this afternoon," he said.
The U.K. government is keen to solve the trade issues and break the political impasse before the 25th anniversary in April of Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord. It is pinning its hopes on striking a deal with the EU that would ease the checks and coax unionists back into the government.
Achieving that long looked unlikely, as Britain threatened to unilaterally rip up parts of the Brexit agreement, and the EU accused the U.K. of failing to honor the legally binding treaty.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who took office in October after a year of turmoil for the governing Conservative Party, has taken a more emollient approach to the EU than his pugnacious predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and the government now acknowledges that Brexit has brought an economic cost for Britain.
Sunak is a long-time Brexit supporter, but also a pragmatist who has made repairing the economy his top priority.
Public opinion has shifted since British voters opted by a 52%-48% margin to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum. Now, polls suggest a majority would vote to rejoin.