Rishi Sunak plans US trip with Northern Ireland high on agenda

UK officials in flurry of diplomacy seeking agreement with EU over protocol, but play down talk that deal is close

Rishi Sunak is considering a trip to visit Joe Biden in the US as talks between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland protocol intensify.

The prime minister’s officials are drawing up plans for him to travel to Washington in the coming weeks to discuss a range of topics, including Ukraine, economic security and technology.

Northern Ireland will also be high on the agenda though, as British officials engage in a flurry of diplomacy aimed at finalising an agreement with Brussels over the post-Brexit Irish border arrangement.

Biden had been expected to travel to the UK around Good Friday in April, but only if an agreement was in place by then.

The US has played an active role in trying to broker an agreement, with Biden having recently appointed Joe Kennedy III as a special envoy to Northern Ireland. Kennedy is also expected to travel to the UK, but that trip is also yet to be confirmed.

No 10 refused to comment on the prime minister’s travel plans, but sources in both the UK and US governments said the prime minister’s team were making plans for a possible visit. They added, however, that the final decision to travel had not yet been made.

If the visit goes ahead, the two leaders will discuss international efforts to support Ukraine in its war with Russia, as well as areas of future cooperation on boosting the two countries’ economies.

But the most delicate discussions are likely to centre on the situation in Northern Ireland.

Talks between the UK and EU over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are at a sensitive stage, officials say. The issue has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between London and Brussels, with the British government complaining that the deal Boris Johnson struck in 2019 has led to an excessive burden of regulation for UK exporters.

The Times reported on Wednesday that a deal had been struck that would see goods destined for Northern Ireland from Great Britain proceed through customs with minimal physical checks, but those going on to the republic checked at Northern Irish ports.

However, it is understood disagreement remains between the EU and the UK on whether customs declarations would have to be completed for all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Supermarkets could be excluded from the paperwork but the EU wants paperwork for components for NI factories that could sell on to the single market.

The Times report also said Brussels had conceded that the European court of justice would only be allowed to rule on issues relating to Northern Ireland if the Northern Irish courts referred the case.

British officials on Wednesday played down the idea that a deal was close. The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “No deal has been agreed. There is still lots of work to do on all areas, with significant gaps remaining between UK and EU positions.” The UK Foreign Office said officials were engaged in “intensive scoping talks” with Brussels.

Downing Street has been deeply cautious about details of any deal leaking out before it is ready, amid concerns that the hardline Brexiter wing of the Conservative party could react angrily to parts of the agreement if it is not handled sensitively.

There are particular concerns that the former prime minister Boris Johnson, who agreed the original NI protocol, could lead a backbench rebellion over the plans.

EU sources also pushed back strongly against reports of a deal on customs in talks on the Northern Ireland protocol.

While the UK and EU attempt to reach a settlement, a former Northern Ireland minister has turned his back on the bill, which he helped introduce, that would give the UK government the power to unilaterally override the protocol.

Conor Burns was one of those in charge of drawing up the Northern Ireland protocol bill under Johnson. However, he said on Wednesday it would not help restore the region’s devolved government, which has been disbanded since last year’s election.

Burns told Andrew Marr on LBC: “The protocol bill – I understand its objectives – but if the aim is restored devolved government in Northern Ireland, then the protocol bill will not take you there.”

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Wednesday: “As always in negotiations you know the principle that everything is only negotiated at the very end, when you know what the result is and you give a final signature.”

She described the talks with the UK as “very constructive”, however, and said she had an “excellent” relationship with Sunak.

Speaking in London, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said he thought a deal was close. “[With] the new government of Mr Sunak, I think there is now common willingness to take responsibility and find a way for a solution,” he said. “It seems to me there is a way in the comings days or weeks.”

A visit by Sunak to Washington could help ease any sense among Northern Irish republicans that they have been cut out of the process. Biden has frequently spoken of his own Irish heritage, while Kennedy is a member of one of the most famous American families descended from Irish Catholic immigrants.

Sources say the recent five-day visit to the US by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, was also a significant move. While there, Heaton-Harris met Derek Chollet, a senior official at the state department and one of Biden’s foreign policy advisers.


Kiran Stacey, Lisa O'Carroll, Pippa Crerar and Jennifer Rankin

The GuardianTramp

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