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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak traveled to Northern Ireland on Thursday evening to meet with local political leaders, a sign that the U.K. and European Union may be nearing a settlement of the post-Brexit trade dispute that has brought economic headaches and political turmoil to the region.
Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris are making the trip to talk with people on all sides of the issue and ensure any solution resolves “the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K.’s internal market,” the prime minister’s office said.
In further signs that a deal may be imminent, British media reported that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly would travel to Brussels Friday to meet the bloc’s chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic.
UNITED KINGDOM PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK PLEDGES TO WORK CONSTRUCTIVELY WITH SCOTLAND’S LEADER
Any deal faces a tough audience: unionist politicians who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K. collapsed the region’s power-sharing government almost a year ago because of their opposition to the existing trade arrangements with the EU, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. They say they will not return to government until the protocol is substantially changed.
The protocol was an effort to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland by preserving the free flow of trade between it and the Republic of Ireland, which share the only land border between the United Kingdom and the EU.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak traveled to Northern Ireland on Thursday, leading some to speculate negotiations to mend trade relations with the European Union are taking place. (James Glossop/Pool Photo via AP)
When the U.K. left the bloc, the British government and the EU agreed to keep the border free of customs checks and other obstacles because the free movement and goods and people is a key pillar of the peace process that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland. But that raised concerns about how the EU would protect its market from British goods that might not meet the bloc’s regulatory standards.
Instead, there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K Unionists say that effectively creates a border in the middle of the Irish Sea, undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
The protocol has become a huge political headache for the U.K. government and a thorn in the country’s relations with the EU. The two sides have bickered since the divorce became final in 2020, with Britain threatening to unilaterally rip up parts of the Brexit agreement, and the EU accusing the U.K. of failing to honor the legally binding treaty it had signed.
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But the mood has improved since Sunak, a pragmatic supporter of Brexit, took office in late October.
The U.K. government hopes to resolve the EU trade dispute and break the political impasse before the 25th anniversary in April of Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord. It is pinning its hopes on striking a deal with the EU that would ease the checks and coax unionists back into the government.
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However, any compromise by Sunak will be a hard sell to Northern Ireland unionists and is sure to anger staunch Brexiteers who form a powerful faction inside the governing Conservative Party.