Irish PM hails ‘window of opportunity’ for deal on Northern Ireland

Irish PM hails ‘window of opportunity’ for deal on Northern Ireland protocol amid claims negotiators are ‘not that far apart’

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The Irish PM hailed a ‘window of opportunity’ to get a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol today.

Micheal Martin praised the ‘pragmatic’ approach being taken by Rishi Sunak as he gave the latest positive assessment of the prospects for a settlement.

The comments came as the Taoiseach attended the second day of the British-Irish council in Blackpool, holding talks with Cabinet minister Michael Gove – who said he was also ‘optimistic’. 

Officials have been briefing that negotiators are ‘not that far apart’ on a resolution, after Stormont elections were delayed to give more time.

Mr Martin, who met Mr Sunak yesterday, told a press conference this afternoon: ‘I was struck by the Prime Minister’s pragmatic approach, understanding where the European Union are coming from, but also he then seeking, obviously, that the EU understands where the United Kingdom is coming from.

‘That’s always a good basis to start negotiations, and to get involved in negotiations. So that’s why I remain hopeful. I do not understate the difficulties. I do not understate the challenges.’

Micheal Martin (left) praised the 'pragmatic' approach being taken by Rishi Sunak as he gave the latest positive assessment of the prospects for a Northern Ireland settlement, after talks with Michael Gove (right)

Micheal Martin (left) praised the ‘pragmatic’ approach being taken by Rishi Sunak as he gave the latest positive assessment of the prospects for a Northern Ireland settlement, after talks with Michael Gove (right)

He added: ‘The essential point is that a window of opportunity has been created with the pausing of the election and the engagement between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union in respect of talks and a clear preference, articulated both by the UK Prime Minister and the European Union leadership, a preference for a negotiated resolution of this.

‘It is my assessment that the window of opportunity now does exist, a space now exists to resolve the outstanding issues pertaining to the protocol by negotiation.’

Mr Gove said he was ‘optimistic’, although he refused to be drawn on whether the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill could be paused to help make progress.

‘The programme of legislation in the House of Commons is something that is above my paygrade. I’m not aware of any plans to pause consideration of the Protocol Bill.’

‘The discussions that the Prime Minister had with all colleagues here about the importance of finding a safe landing zone I think were conducted in a cordial and constructive fashion and as the Northern Ireland Secretary said, he is a glass half-full man so we remain optimistic about the opportunities of reaching a resolution.’

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told BBC Radio 4, ‘Yes, I’m a glass half-full man’, when asked if a new treaty could be clinched by Christmas.

It came as Rishi Sunak met his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin at the British-Irish Council in Blackpool in a fresh push to get a deal over the line. The Prime Minister said afterwards he was ‘pleased with the progress we’re making’.

But this fuelled speculation the Government is considering dropping its previous demand that the European Court of Justice be stripped of its powers in Ulster.

David Jones, of the European Research Group of Tory MPs, warned: ‘ECJ involvement is an absolute red line… essentially the ECJ is where EU sovereignty resides.’

João Vale de Almeida, the outgoing EU ambassador to the UK, suggested relations have been buoyed by the arrival of Mr Sunak after his positive talks with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and French president Emmanuel Macron at the Cop27 climate summit this week.

‘There’s a new cycle in Britain and there should be a new cycle in UK-EU relations,’ he told The Financial Times.

The EU diplomat added that ‘low levels of trust existed between the two sides’ during Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s tenures, but that ‘the mood music has changed, the melody is nicer’.

In a sign that Brussels could make concessions, he said ‘we have not exhausted the potential of our offers’.

But the veteran diplomat cautioned that ‘we still don’t have the words of a new British song’ and that both sides are some distance from entering the famous ‘tunnel’ in the late stage of negotiations, where final compromises are made.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (pictured) said he was 'glass half-full' over a new deal being clinched by Christmas

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (pictured) said he was ‘glass half-full’ over a new deal being clinched by Christmas

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