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By Alistair Smout

Speculation on N. Ireland protocol deal premature, DUP leader says

FILE PHOTO: Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), speaks to the media after meeting with Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Britain January 12, 2023. REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Speculation that a long-standing dispute between Britain and the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol is close to being resolved is premature, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party told Reuters on Wednesday.

A new deal to resolve the dispute between Britain and the bloc over Northern Ireland's post-Brexit trading rules could be announced within weeks, according to several media reports.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will discuss the deal with leaders in Germany this weekend, according to the Financial Times.

Britain says talks are continuing, with no deal yet reached.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland's largest pro-British party, has boycotted power-sharing with Irish nationalists in the region's devolved parliament over opposition to the current protocol.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, whose opinion will be crucial if Sunak tries to win support for any deal, has said that political institutions will remain paralysed in the province if there is no agreement unionists can support.

"I think the speculation is a wee bit ahead of time," Donaldson told Reuters when asked about the protocol.

Fellow DUP lawmaker Sammy Wilson said the party had not seen any details of the deal Sunak was concluding with the EU.

The fundamental issue for the DUP is the "democratic deficit and the constitutional damage done by the imposition of EU law" on Northern Ireland, Wilson said in a statement.

After Britain and the EU last month agreed a way forward on sharing live trade data, some focus has shifted to the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in trade disputes.

Following reports Britain had conceded the ECJ would retain some role, Conservative lawmaker David Jones said the protocol question "won't be resolved unless the automatic application of EU law and the jurisdiction of the ECJ in NI both come to an end."

"Cosmetic changes just won't work," he said on Twitter.

Asked about the protocol talks, a British government spokesperson said the priority was to preserve "political stability in Northern Ireland and the UK internal market."

"Any solution must address the full range of issues the Protocol is causing in Northern Ireland," the spokesperson said.

"We are currently engaging in intensive scoping talks with the EU to find solutions to these problems."

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Conor Humphries and Mike Harrison)

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