By Amy Gibbons, PA Political Correspondent
Brandon Lewis has said he is an “optimist” when it comes to the prospect of a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but triggering Article 16 is still on the table as “substantive gaps” remain between the two sides.
The Northern Ireland Secretary made the comments at a press conference at the Foreign Office on Thursday, following a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
He struck a hopeful tone after Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said on Wednesday that reaching an agreement on the protocol before Christmas was “unrealistic”.
Brexit minister Lord Frost previously said both the UK and the EU wanted the dispute “settled one way or the other” before the winter.
Asked in October how long Britain was prepared to carry on talks with the European Commission before invoking Article 16 of the protocol, a move that would effectively unilaterally suspend the treaty, he signalled that the UK government and Brussels wanted the issue resolved by December.
Taking questions from journalists alongside Mr Coveney, as well as UK Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns and Justice Minister Helen McEntee, Mr Lewis said “substantive gaps” remained between the sides, but he was optimistic about future talks.
He said: “Obviously, we believe that the conditions were met for Article 16 in the summer. We haven’t triggered Article 16 because we don’t want to.
“We want to find a negotiated, agreed solution with the EU that gives certainty. Those conversations are ongoing.
“Ultimately, as I say, my position is, as is (Lord Frost’s) and the Prime Minister’s, very much that (an) agreed solution between us and the EU is the best way forward.
“But there are substantive gaps between us and if we need to use Article 16 to move things forward, then we will have to do that. We don’t want to. Hopefully we can get a positive solution through the negotiations and discussions.”
Mr Lewis said he was “hopeful” that the UK could come to an agreement with the EU.
“Article 16 is part of the protocol… and there are gaps between us at the moment, but I’m an optimist and I’m hopeful that we will be able to come to a positive resolution with the EU,” he said.
“But that’s where our focus has got to be – about resolving the issues for the people of Northern Ireland. And that’s the focus the team has got to have.”
Mr Coveney said on Wednesday that he did not think there would be “a full deal on all issues relating to the protocol” before Christmas.
He reiterated the point on Thursday, adding: “The truth is that there are serious gaps. There hasn’t been a breakthrough moment in the last number of weeks, but I think there has been, I think, a deeper understanding of each other’s positions.
“Do I think that all issues can be resolved linked to the protocol by the end of the year? I think that’s a very tall order and unlikely to happen.
“But I think we should still give time and space to the negotiating teams to continue to work through what are difficult issues for both sides. And I think there’s a commitment to doing that.
“And I think the less we talk about the triggering of Article 16 and the more we talk about trying to find landing zones that both sides can work with in the context of the protocol, and flexibility around its implementation, then I think the better.”
Mr Lewis admitted his autumn deadline for legislating on controversial proposals to tackle legacy issues in Northern Ireland had been missed.
In July, he announced plans for a statute of limitations which would end all prosecutions for Troubles incidents up to April 1998 and would apply to military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries.
Mr Lewis said in October that the UK government intended to legislate on the plans “this autumn”.
But he said the deadline had been “missed” at Thursday’s press conference in London.
Mr Lewis said: “I’m already past the autumn. I think the latest I’ve heard autumn described once was the autumn statement of December 4 one year. So, I think we’ve already missed that.
“The reality is, I think, it’s important to put the time in to try and find a way forward that can help Northern Ireland move forward.
“If that takes a bit more time, then that’s something we’ve been prepared to do, hence why we didn’t deal with this earlier in the year and we were focused on trying to do something in the autumn, but we will do everything we can to try and find a way forward that works together.”