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British, Irish leaders bid to resolve N.Ireland Brexit dispute

#British #Irish #leaders #bid #resolve #N.Ireland #Brexit #dispute

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday hosts his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin, as they bid to end a dispute over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland that has stymied power-sharing. 

The two leaders meet in Blackpool, northwest England, with signs that frosty ties are thawing over the issue that has paralysed Northern Irish politics and put London at loggerheads with Brussels and Dublin.  

In a sign of renewed commitment to resolving the row, Sunak will become the first UK prime minister since 2007 to open the bi-annual British-Irish Council summit.

Downing Street said Sunak will tell Martin he is “determined” to help restore the power-sharing assembly in Belfast “as soon as possible”. 

It collapsed in February over opposition from pro-UK unionists to the Northern Ireland Protocol governing post-Brexit trade.

The pact was signed separately from the trade and cooperation deal that cemented the UK’s formal departure from the European Union in January 2021.

But its implementation has proven a flashpoint for disagreement between the bloc, member state Ireland and Britain — and even threatens a possible EU-UK trade war.

The protocol kept Northern Ireland in the European single market and customs union, stipulating checks on goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland.

– ‘Time and space’ –

That was designed to prevent a “hard” border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — a key plank of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that largely ended three decades of conflict.

But it has enraged hardline unionists, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), leading to their boycott of the Stormont assembly in Belfast earlier this year.

Elections in May further complicated the situation, after pro-Irish party Sinn Fein on a historic first election.

The UK government, which is risking EU reprisals by trying to overhaul the protocol through legislation, has threatened to order a new vote.

But on Wednesday it extended a deadline “to create the time and space needed” for talks with the European Commission.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said on Thursday that the protocol remained “one of the biggest obstacles” to resuming power-sharing.

But in a further sign of a more conciliatory tone from London, he noted “showing trust and respect with the European Commission” could help solve disagreements over it.

Both Brussels and Dublin have signalled hopes that they can break the deadlock in the coming weeks.

Europe’s point person on the talks, Maros Sefcovic, said on Monday an agreement could be found with the right “political will”.

– Peace guarantors –

The Irish and UK governments are guarantors of the 1998 peace accords which ended the sectarian violence over British rule in Northern Ireland that left 3,500 dead.

The British-Irish Council brings together the UK, Ireland and representatives from the devolved Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh governments, plus those on the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey.

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill — who is set to become Northern Ireland’s first minister if the executive can be restarted — said the political impasse in Belfast meant there would be “no political representation from Stormont” on this occasion.

“The DUP are preventing our voice from being heard, when it counts,” she tweeted.

In Blackpool, Sunak will also have his first face-to-face meetings as leader with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her counterpart in Wales, Mark Drakeford.

Sturgeon is pushing for a second referendum on independence despite opposition from the government in London.

During a debate Drakeford recently exploded with rage at the economic damage caused by Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss, whose proposed unfunded tax cuts caused turmoil in the markets. 

Downing Street said Sunak will urge leaders to work together to tackle the current economic crisis, Downing Street said.

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#British #Irish #leaders #bid #resolve #N.Ireland #Brexit #dispute

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