UK, EU close to deal with Northern Ireland, Irish Prime Minister says

DUBLIN, 25 February (Reuters) – Britain and the European Union are poised to finalize talks on the review of post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and an agreement is possible, but by no means guaranteed, in in the coming days, the Irish Prime Minister said on Saturday.

Momentum has been building for weeks towards a deal to ease trade controls introduced under the Northern Ireland Protocol – the arrangements agreed to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland when Britain left the EU in 2020.

Lawmakers from British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative party have been told to be in parliament on Monday, as a sign that a deal is imminent.

“I think the protocol reform talks are moving towards a conclusion. The deal is certainly not done yet, but I do think we are moving towards a conclusion,” Leo Varadkar told reporters.

“There is the possibility of agreement in the coming days, but by no means guaranteed… There is still a gap to be closed,” said Varadkar, adding that there is ongoing engagement between the UK government and the European Commission.

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Varadkar, who played a key role in agreeing the protocol in 2019, encouraged London, Brussels and Northern Irish politicians to “go a step further” to reach an agreement, saying the benefits would be “huge”.

While a deal would end a two-year standoff between Britain and the EU, Sunak could face pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers and pro-British Northern Irish politicians to make the deal work.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Northern Ireland voters – who opposed Brexit – are in favor of the idea of ​​the protocol, but the county’s assembly and power-sharing government have been out of office for a year due to union opposition.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-British party in the region, has said it will not end the assembly boycott unless all controls on goods destined for Northern Ireland from Britain are lifted.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin Edited by Mark Potter and Frances Kerry

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