Vicki Hawthorne: 'After quiet start, Northern Ireland political year kicks off

James Cleverly and Maroš Šefčovič.
James Cleverly is visiting NI fresh after talks with EU Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.

It's been a quiet start to the week, but it's not going to end the same way.

Visits to Northern Ireland from the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and the Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer are all on the cards.

The political new year will officially kick off on Wednesday with a round table meeting hosted by the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris involving all the political parties.

Mr Heaton-Harris accompanied the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to a meeting with the European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic on the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

After the discussion, it was announced that there had been a significant agreement between the UK and EU on sharing data on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

It means EU officials will have access to UK IT systems.  The agreement is being viewed as an important step forward which could help pave the way for further agreements to resolve issues with the protocol.  But there's still so much more to sort out.  

The Northern Ireland party leaders are now expecting an update in person from the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly this week on the current state of the UK-EU discussions on the protocol.  

They will also want to know what the Secretary of State's plan is beyond the next deadline for restoring Stormont. 

If there is no deal on the protocol, and the DUP has not agreed to return to Stormont by the 19th January (next Thursday) the Secretary of State is legally obliged to call an election.  Or as is widely expected, he can push the deadline back yet again.

NorterMeanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to also meet the parties on Thursday.  It will be Mr Varadkar's first visit to Northern Ireland since he returned to the Taoiseach's office last month. 

His recent comments that perhaps the protocol had been "a bit too strict" and that there is room for changes have been broadly welcomed, but his relationships with unionists in the past has not been good, so he will be treading carefully.

There is also a plan for the Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer to visit on Thursday.  As the man who wants to be a credible challenge to Rishi Sunak to be the next Prime Minister he will talk to the Northern Ireland parties in an effort to keep across all the issues here.  

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