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Image source, ReutersImage caption, The EU unveiled its plans to ease the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol in October

"Time is running out" on UK-EU talks over the Northern Ireland protocol, Brexit Minister Lord Frost has said.

The UK's Brexit minister said "a significant gap remained" as he arrived in Brussels to meet European Commission (EC) Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

They are meeting to decide if progress has been made in the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol is the special Brexit deal agreed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

It keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods and allows free-flowing trade with the EU.

But it also creates a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Lord Frost said the UK was not going to trigger Article 16 – which allows parts of the protocol to be unilaterally suspended if they are causing serious difficulties – on Friday, although this was "very much on the table and has been since July".

He said they hoped to make progress.

Image source, NEIL HALLImage caption, Lord Frost said the UK government would not trigger Article 16 "with any particular pleasure"

Lord Frost added that if the gap narrowed, the commission listened to what was said in the UK command paper and looked at the situation in Northern Ireland that could help move things forward.

He would not give a timescale on how long negotiations could last but said they were trying to reach agreement and were going to "carry on trying".

The European Commission has also ruled out talk about deadlines.

EC spokesman Daniel Ferrie told reporters in Brussels on Friday that the Commission was "fully concentrated on finding solutions".

He said the EU's proposals were "far-reaching and ambitious".

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he expected to see decisive action on the protocol before the end of November.

Image caption, Sir Jeffrey said he expected decisive action on the protocol within weeks

Sir Jeffrey, whose party opposes the protocol, said he would meet Lord Frost next week to discuss the issue.

"The protocol is harming Northern Ireland, it is harming our economy, it is harming our political place in the union and that's why I want to see new arrangements put in place that respect Northern Ireland's place within the UK internal market," he said.

"I hope agreement can be reached but if it can't then within weeks I want to see the UK government taking decisive action."

What are the UK-EU discussions about?

The EU accepts the Northern Ireland Protocol is causing difficulties for many businesses and has proposed measures to ease the checks and controls for goods crossing the Irish Sea.

However, the UK is demanding a fundamental reform of the protocol and there is growing speculation it will trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks.

Last month, Lord Frost said the UK government "would not go down this route gratuitously or with any particular pleasure".

The measures can be taken if the protocol is leading to serious "economic, societal or environmental difficulties" that are liable to persist.

  • Why Brexit still has a Northern Ireland problem
  • What is Article 16 and what exactly does it say?
  • Most NI checks on British goods to be scrapped

If the UK was to use Article 16 to suspend most controls on goods going from GB to NI, that could cause significant problems for Ireland.

It could reopen questions about goods being controlled as they cross the Irish border or as they leave Ireland for the rest of the EU.

Taoiseach (Irish PM) Micheál Martin has said it would be "irresponsible and reckless" for the UK to trigger Article 16.

What does Article 16 say?

There is growing speculation that the UK is planning to use Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks.

The Irish government says such a move would be "reckless and irresponsible".

The UK government says it "would not go down this route gratuitously or with any particular pleasure".

Article 16 of the protocol sets out the process for taking unilateral "safeguard" measures if either the EU or UK concludes that the deal is leading to serious practical problems or causing diversion of trade.

Those safeguards would amount to suspending parts of the deal.

So what would that mean, and could the entire Brexit deal collapse?

Read the full analysis here.

Meanwhile, a survey has indicated that the protocol is not a top priority for most people across Northern Ireland, including unionists.

Unionist parties in Northern Ireland oppose the protocol, as they say it undermines their place in the UK.

It ranked fourth on the list of priorities behind health, Covid recovery and the economy.

The survey also shows the majority of the 1,000 people asked would support remaining in the UK if a border poll was held "tomorrow".

Reacting to the survey, Sir Jeffrey said he did not agree that people do not care about the protocol, saying it was a "big issue for many people, particularly those businesses that are being harmed".

"They do care about the protocol and they also care, as I do, about other issues like health, like Covid recovery, the economy.

"These things are important and they are all inextricably bound up in our membership of the union."

Commissioned by the University of Liverpool, the survey questioned people across all of Northern Ireland's council areas last month.

Of those who responded, 39% described themselves as unionist, 26% nationalist and 33% neither unionist or nationalist

The survey indicated that just over 9% said the protocol was their biggest concern.

When broken down, just 12% of unionists said the protocol was the important issue for them.

More than 60% also said they wanted the Stormont Executive to remain in place until the Assembly election in May.

When asked how they would vote in a border poll "tomorrow", 58% of those surveyed supported remaining in the UK, with 29% voting for a united Ireland.

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