Foreign Secretary in Northern Ireland to update on protocol talks

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visits Northern Ireland.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will spend the day in Northern Ireland meeting political parties and businesses as discussions continue on the Protocol.

Mr Cleverly will join the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris at a round table meeting with party leaders in Belfast to up date them on progress made this week in resolving issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The foreign secretary is also expected to meet business groups to hear the "real-world impact" the Protocol is having.

James Cleverly met the European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič on Monday.  

Following the discussions described as "cordial and constructive" it was announced that the UK and EU had reached a significant agreement to share trade data.  It means the EU will be able to access the UK's IT system and view live customs information about the goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, providing reassurance to the EU that the Single Market is protected.

The agreement on this particular issue has been billed as important in building trust between the EU and UK and both sides have said it "provides the basis for further discussions."  

Ahead of his visit to Northern Ireland Mr Cleverly said, "My preference is for a negotiated solution, but the UK’s priority is protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and preserving political stability in Northern Ireland.  

“I am listening to the concerns of people and businesses in Northern Ireland and am keenly aware that the current situation isn’t working. We need to address those issues with the Protocol that risk and undermine the place of NI in the UK."

As part of his visit the foreign secretary is also expected to visit a garden centre and nursery to hear about the specific difficulties caused by the Protocol, such as restrictions on the movement of plants and seeds.

Much has been made of the improved mood and relationships in the UK and EU negotiations.  However, there is still a lot to discuss, with the role of the European Court of Justice and future governance expected to be the most difficult issue to resolve.  

The DUP insists it will not return to Stormont until the Protocol problems are dealt with and says it will judge any deal against its "7 tests" for ensuring Northern Ireland's place in the UK is protected.

In a statement ahead of meeting the foreign secretary, the DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said, “The Protocol was not, is not and will not be supported by unionists.  Whilst some may be focused on short-term fixes, that will not work for the people of Northern Ireland... In July 2021, I outlined our seven tests for any deal which would replace the NI Protocol. They remain our yardstick for any proposed deal."

Following a telephone conversation with the Tánaiste Micheál Martin yesterday, Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill posted on social media, "We share a common commitment on way forward to get negotiated outcome on Protocol & immediate restoration of power-sharing.  My priority is to work with all parties & both Governments to achieve this in days and weeks ahead."

During today's roundtable meeting, the political parties are also likely to push the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris for his plans on what he will do if or when next week's deadline to restore Stormont passes.  

If Stormont has not been restored by 19th January (next Thursday), the Secretary of State is legally obliged to call an election.  

It is widely anticipated that Mr Heaton-Harris will again delay any election decision to allow more time for the UK and EU discussions.

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