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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

Northern Ireland secretary optimistic on resolving Brexit standoff with EU

The British government has said it is looking to move on from the row with the EU over Northern Ireland and is aiming to “move quickly” to reach a solution on Brexit arrangements.

After a joint meeting with Irish ministers in London, the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said he optimistic for a settlement after the resumption of talks after an eight-month standoff.

“I want to be very positive about the chances of getting a negotiated solution. We are working in good spirits and in good cooperation to deliver on the changes that are required for the protocol to be fixed or the issues within the protocol to be fixed. We need to show some progress on that,” he said. “We need something pretty quickly,” he added, in order to get the NI executive restored. “We need to move on.”

As technical talks aimed at settling the protracted dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol resumed, Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said both sides hoped to be able to make a “big step forward” by the end of October that would enable power sharing to resume in Northern Ireland.

A final deal on the protocol would not be achievable in three weeks, he said. But Coveney said there was a “flicker of optimism” a deal could be done in the coming months.

He said he hoped that the two sides could “find a way of making a big step forward by end of October that can be a basis for reassuring particularly the unionist community”. He added: “What we are after is a nil-all draw where everybody can walk away feeling they have not won or lost but can live with the outcome and a solution that allows Northern Ireland to move on.”

The ministers, along with Ireland’s justice minister, Helen McEntee, and the Northern Ireland minister, Steve Baker, were speaking a press conference following a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in London on Friday.

The meeting, which was scheduled months in advance, was the first opportunity for both sides to get together following the resumption of technical talks after an eight-month standoff.

Asked why the UK government was pushing ahead with the Northern Ireland protocol bill, which would enable the UK to make a unilateral decision to tear up the protocol, Heaton-Harris said he hoped that legislation would become “redundant” if a deal could be struck.

“We need to move on on this,” he said, adding that the technical talks had resumed “in good faith and good humour”.

“Hopefully the Northern Ireland bill will be redundant,” he said. “I want to be very positive about the chances of getting a negotiated solution.”

In an extraordinary show of unity, both Coveney and Heaton-Harris said nothing would divide them at the moment as they made a concerted effort to end the dispute that has upset the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

Pressure on the UK to find a negotiated solution is also coming from Joe Biden. On Monday Derek Chollet, a special adviser to US state secretary Antony Blinken, is expected to visit Northern Ireland. It is thought there are all plans for Baker to visit the port of Larne.

Baker said he would continue to be “friends” of the Democratic Unionist party and would redouble efforts to find a solution that also worked for them.

Speaking about what had changed on the UK side to create the conditions for the resumption of negotiations, Baker spoke of the apology he had issued last week to Ireland and the EU for failing to respect their “legitimate interests” during the years of rancour over Brexit, when he headed the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party.

Baker said the relationship between Ireland and the UK was incredibly important, but added: “Transformed relationships require humility and resolve.”

Heaton-Harris said for the third time in as many weeks that the UK government would have no option but to call an election if the Democratic Unionist party did not return to power sharing by 28 October.

“The unionist community are entitled to expect respect,” Baker said. But he warned that a deal was about “all parties”. “I very much hope we can persuade the DUP.”

Heaton-Harris said he would not be providing a road map or running commentary, but he was “very very positive” about the “tone that has been struck” between the parties.

Coveney said the technical discussions had “gone reasonably well” this week and it would be up to the EU and the UK to design the compromises needed to create a deal.

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