Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday downplayed hopes of a speedy end to the bickering over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland that has caused long-term political paralysis in Belfast.
On a visit to the British province, he said he was optimistic about ironing out differences over the Northern Ireland Protocol that led pro-British parties to leave the meeting last year.
Varadkar said he was “hopeful” of a deal leading to the resumption of the power-sharing executive after meeting political leaders for closed-door talks at a Belfast hotel.
But he warned that agreement on the protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market and customs union, may not be enough to get the meeting back on track.
“It’s not a given that one follows the other,” he told reporters, also downplaying rumors that a deal was near in the long-running saga, which has strained ties between the UK and the EU.
“We are not yet in the proverbial tunnel,” he said.
Varadkar, who returned as prime minister in December under a rotation deal agreed by the coalition government in Dublin, described the talks as “very constructive”, without going into detail.
Hopes have been raised that the feud will come to an end after London and Brussels said this week they had reached an agreement to share customs data on goods traveling from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
There has been a flurry of senior political visits to the British province this week as the January 19 TBEN approaches for the Devolved Assembly to return – or face new elections.
– ‘Errors’ –
Northern Ireland marks the 25th anniversary on April 10 of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence over British rule.
Varadkar declined to commit to a timetable for a deal or say it could be done by that date, but said all parties wanted to avoid “unnecessary elections”.
“It wouldn’t serve any purpose. I honestly don’t believe in my heart that the election result would be much different,” he added.
Northern Ireland, set up as a pro-British, Protestant enclave when Ireland threw off British rule just over a century ago, last year saw the pro-Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein win the most seats in the assembly for the first time.
Power-sharing between nationalists and trade unionists is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, as is an open border with Ireland, which has complicated post-Brexit trade.
The EU wants to prevent uncontrolled goods from England, Scotland and Wales from entering the internal market through the back door via member state Ireland.
But pro-British parties believe the protocol Britain signed with the EU is driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country, making a united Ireland more likely.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has also played down hopes of a deal. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a deal,” he told TBEN radio.
“While some progress has been made on some technical issues at this point, there are important political issues in those negotiations that have not yet been addressed,” Donaldson said.
Varadkar acknowledged that “mistakes” were made and their implementation was “too strict”, adding that he wanted a low number of checks.
A potentially crucial meeting between the UK and the EU is scheduled for Monday.