UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has mobilised two of his top officials in a final push to resolve the dispute over post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade arrangements, with hopes rising in London after insiders reported significant progress in talks this week.
Sir Tim Barrow, Sunak’s national security adviser and former British ambassador to the EU, has been deployed to help with the diplomacy around the highly sensitive discussions.
Meanwhile, Simon Case, cabinet secretary, is said by colleagues to be playing an increasingly important role, drawing on his lengthy experience of EU negotiations.
Case knows the issue well having led early discussions on solving the Irish border problem thrown up by Brexit. “Simon is playing a key role, particularly on the internal government side of things,” said a government insider.
Barrow had been using his wide diplomatic contacts in Europe and the US to prepare the ground for a possible deal with the EU, said two officials close to the negotiations.
Joe Biden, the US president, is putting pressure on London and Brussels to settle the disagreement, which has soured relations between Britain and the EU since Brexit took full effect in January 2021.
Three people with knowledge of the talks said there had been a significant step forward in discussions and that the outline of a framework agreement was crystallising.
But two EU insiders cautioned that converting the outline of a deal into a viable political agreement “depended a lot” on whether Sunak could sell the deal in London.
Talks between London and Brussels have intensified in recent weeks to thrash out an agreement to minimise the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol, which created a trade border in the Irish Sea.
Under the terms of the deal, Northern Ireland will follow EU rules for goods, VAT and state aid policy, which both Conservative Brexiters and the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland have said impinged unacceptably on UK sovereignty.
The DUP has refused to re-enter Northern Ireland’s stalled power-sharing executive until issues over the protocol are resolved. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, has repeatedly said any deal must “restore our place in the UK”.
A deal will turn on whether the agreement can reduce the levels of checks at the Irish Sea trade border to manageable levels and resolve the role of the European Court of Justice in enforcing the protocol.
A system of “red” and “green” lanes is expected to form the basis of a plan to reduce checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, with products destined to remain in the region being clearly labelled.
Marks and Spencer chair Archie Norman wrote to the UK foreign secretary on Wednesday to warn that a Northern Ireland-specific labelling system would create “overbearing and prohibitive costs” for retailers trading with the regions.
Insiders said other retailers had also raised concerns about the costs of the disagreement, but UK officials noted that labelling had been part of the solutions to the protocol proposed by Boris Johnson’s government. Retailers, they said, would have to “suck up” the costs.
A government spokesperson said: “We have been clear any solutions to the problems caused by the Northern Ireland protocol must work for all communities in Northern Ireland and address the range of issues including governance and the democratic deficit on how new EU laws apply in NI.
“Our priority remains to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and to preserve political stability in Northern Ireland and the UK internal market.
“We continue to work intensively on these issues and discussions with the EU are ongoing.”