LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak headed to Northern Ireland for talks with the region’s parties, as expectation mounts that Britain and the E.U. will reach a deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements in the coming days.
Sunak flew to Belfast on Thursday evening, according to a person familiar with his plans who spoke anonymously about the unannounced visit.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will also have lunch with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic Friday, people familiar said, in another indication that both sides are looking to close a deal to resolve long-standing divisions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the portion of the Brexit deal setting out the region’s trading arrangements.
A No. 10 spokesperson later confirmed Sunak’s Belfast trip in an emailed statement, which said he would begin an “engagement process” with the parties there.
Bloomberg reported this week that the U.K. and E.U. expect to announce an agreement in the coming days. It could come early next week, the person familiar said.
Sunak is expected to hold talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Munich Security Conference in Germany this weekend, where Brexit would be discussed, they added.
U.K. and E.U. negotiators were nearing a provisional agreement on a solution for the years-long disagreement on the Protocol at the end of January. The two sides had been locked in intensive negotiations for weeks, with officials close to a deal covering most pending issues, including on customs, state aid and sanitary checks on agri-food goods.
If a deal is finalized, Sunak will have to walk a political tightrope to sell it to Northern Irish unionists and members of his own ruling Conservatives.
The government will try to convince the Democratic Unionist Party that the agreement meets their concerns about Northern Ireland’s role in the U.K. in the coming weeks, people familiar with the matter said. The DUP has blocked the formation of the region’s government for a year in protest at the so-called Protocol.
Commenting on Sunak’s visit, Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Jr. said that Northern Irish unionists felt he had “some distance to travel before he can reach a deal.”
Tory Brexiteers have indicated they would oppose any agreement that allowed the European Court of Justice to maintain jurisdiction on matters of E.U. law in Northern Ireland.
David Jones, a Tory MP who is part of the European Research Group of Brexiteers, warned Sunak in a tweet Thursday that Northern Ireland “must cease to be subject to laws made in Brussels.”
“Anything less won’t work,” he said.
(Bloomberg News writer Jorge Valero contributed to this story.)