Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, said there was ‘a deal to be done’ on post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland after ‘constructive talks’ with her EU counterpart made hope for less resentful relations with Brussels.
The particularly sunny prognosis follows an initial meeting with Maroš Šefčovič, the EU commissioner responsible for Brexit issues, at Chevening, the minister’s official country residence in Kent.
In a joint EU-UK statement, a rarity in recent years, Truss and Šefčovič said intensive talks would begin next week to address outstanding issues over Northern Ireland’s place in the EU. and the UK internal market.
“We had constructive discussions with the EU,” Truss said in a later interview with the BBC. “We will now enter into intensive negotiations to work towards a negotiated solution to address these very real issues for the people of Northern Ireland.”
The Foreign Secretary played down previous threats of triggering Article 16 of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, under which the UK would suspend parts of the previously agreed EU deal.
She said: “What I want is a negotiated solution. I think there is a deal to be made. We have had constructive discussions over the last day.
“Of course, there is still work to be done, and that is why we are intensifying the discussions. I will see the vice-president again in a week and I want to make progress. It is clear that if we do not make enough progress, we will have to look at the alternatives, but my absolute desire is to get a deal that works for the people of Northern Ireland.
The attempt to establish a strong personal relationship with Šefčovič at Chevening, where the two politicians strolled the estate and dined on Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and apple pie, made it clear that the government is seeking to restore relations after the resignation of Lord Frost, who often clashed with his adversaries in Brussels.
Major differences remain between the parties over the future implementation of the protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and draws a customs border along the Irish Sea.
The EU has proposed to halve the number of customs checks and reduce health and safety checks on meat, vegetables and dairy products by 80%.
The UK insists the proposed plans do not yet deliver on that promise and is pushing for a more radical overhaul that would ensure there are no checks on goods from Britain destined to stay in North Ireland.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which leads Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, demanded a timetable for implementing the UK’s protocol requirements.
Northern Ireland goes to the polls in May and the two sides are expected to seek a deal before this election.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the improved background music around the talks. He said: ‘I think it’s a good thing Brexit issues and protocol issues are back in the Foreign Office in London rather than a separate unit headed by Lord Frost.