British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Friday he was hopeful of reaching a resolution to a long-running dispute with the European Union on changing post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.
Technical talks resumed in October for the first time in seven months on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that mandated checks on some goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
European Commision President Ursula von der Leyen said earlier this month she was “very confident” a positive conclusion was within reach, but there has so far been no breakthrough in the renewed negotiations.
“The way the protocol is being implemented is threatening Northern Ireland’s place in the union. I want to fix that and that’s what I’m getting engaged constructively with our European partners on and I’m hopeful that we can find resolution,” Sunak told the BBC on his first trip to Northern Ireland as premier.
“I want to make sure that we sit down with our European partners and allies find a way through this, make the reforms that we need to make and then get the (Northern Ireland) executive back up and running.”
The stalemate has held back a normalisation of relations between Britain and the EU and plunged Northern Irish politics into crisis, with the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) blocking the functioning of the local assembly and devolved government until the checks are removed.
The Belfast Telegraph newspaper separately quoted Sunak as saying he will not be putting a deadline on the talks.
The protocol was designed to avoid politically contentious checks between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, but many unionists argue the effective border created in the Irish Sea erases part of their British identity.
Both sides say they also want to protect the gains made by the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that largely ended three decades of sectarian and political bloodshed during which 3,600 people were killed.
Ireland’s foreign minister said last week that the two sides have made progress on sharing real-time customs data relating to the protocol but are “not quite there yet” on an issue that could help unlock an agreement.