A deal between the EU and the UK on post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland is possible before the end of the year, Ireland’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Simon Coveney’s optimism comes as the governments in Dublin and London prepare for talks at a British-Irish summit later this week.
Europe’s pointman on talks to resolve the row, Maros Sefcovic, on Monday said agreement could come within weeks with the right “political will”.
Ireland’s prime minister Micheal Martin will meet his UK counterpart Rishi Sunak at the summit in Blackpool, northwest England, on Thursday, Coveney added.
“We need to get this issue behind us in terms of the protocol in a way that respects an international treaty that’s been signed,” he said.
“I think it’s doable by the end of the year,” he told reporters in Dublin, stopping short of a definitive timeline for talks.
Relations between EU member Ireland and the UK, which left the bloc in 2021, have been damaged by disagreements over the implementation of trade arrangements in UK-run Northern Ireland.
The deal signed by London and Brussels effectively keeps Northern Ireland within the European single market and customs union.
Northern Ireland has the UK’s only land border with the EU but it needs to be kept open under the terms of a 1998 peace deal that ended decades of violence over British rule.
It has led to checks on goods heading to the province from Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales — which the UK and pro-UK parties in Northern Ireland oppose.
The UK wants to unilaterally overhaul the protocol through legislation currently making its way though parliament despite EU warnings it could spark reprisals and a possible trade war.
Coveney said this week’s summit would also give the UK the opportunity to provide “some clarity” on its approach to elections in Northern Ireland.
Last week, London backtracked on calling a December election to the region’s devolved assembly, which has been paralysed since February over unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-UK party in the province, wants the arrangements overhauled or scrapped entirely, saying they threaten Northern Ireland’s constitutional place in the UK.
Coveney called for compromise on all sides, including in the DUP and said talks were the way forward.
In London, Sunak and his senior ministers agreed that restoring the Belfast assembly and protecting the Good Friday Agreement was their “absolute priority”.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told his colleagues he had carried out “extensive engagement” in the region in recent days, Sunak’s office said in a statement.
He was expected to outline his “informed approach” based on those discussions to parliament on Wednesday, it added.