Dominic McGrath and Patrick Daly, PA Political Staff
Gaps still remain between the EU and UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Downing Street said, as the British foreign secretary James Cleverly resumes talks with the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
Mr Cleverly will speak to Mr Sefcovic on Monday over a proposal to iron out issues with post-Brexit trade arrangements affecting Northern Ireland and Britain.
Speculation had mounted in recent days that the two sides could be edging towards a breakthrough on the Northern Ireland Protocol, amid suggestions that cross-Channel relations have improved since Rishi Sunak became Britain's prime minister.
Downing Street on Monday appeared to play down hopes of an imminent breakthrough, saying issues remain outstanding in the negotiations.
“They will continue to look at any progress that’s being made,” Mr Sunak's official spokesman said of the meeting.
“But as we’ve said on a number of occasions, there are still gaps in our position that need to be resolved in order to address the full range of problems created by the protocol.”
The announcement last week that a deal had been reached on sharing real-time data on goods travelling from Britain to the North was seen as a step towards an overall resolution.
A UK government source said the negotiations were proving “complex and difficult” but there was a “desire to work together” to reach an agreement.
Labour said signs of progress were “promising” and urged Mr Sunak to ignore the right wing of his party to secure a protocol pact with Brussels.
Talk of pushing through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, heavily criticised by the EU for the way it would unilaterally override parts of the treaty signed by former British prime minister Boris Johnson, has grown quieter in recent months.
There has also been a flurry of activity in Northern Ireland, with Mr Cleverly and UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s Belfast appearances last week adding to speculation that a protocol announcement is moving nearer.
Irish MEP Barry Andrews told Times Radio on Sunday that there was an “expectation” that a “political declaration” could emerge out of the Cleverly-Sefcovic talks on Monday.
“Not an internationally binding agreement, but a political declaration and framework for the way forward,” said the Fianna Fáil politician.
“We had some positive announcements last week and generally I think there’s been a build-up of trust between the parties.”
Speaking to the PA news agency about Monday’s talks, a UK government source said: “We’d all prefer a negotiated solution but significant gaps remain.
“It is the conversations with the commission that will either bring that about or not.
“Nobody should be under any illusions that this is complex and difficult but the desire to work together on a solution seems to be there.”
Alongside the EU-UK talks, Labour will send a delegation to Derry to meet business leaders and learn about how the protocol has affected Northern Ireland trade.
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle and shadow Cabinet Office minister Baroness Chapman will visit Foyle Port, a gateway that handles two million tonnes of cargo a year.
Party officials said they were going to “see first-hand how red tape from the Conservatives’ deal and ongoing uncertainty are affecting trade”.
The protocol was agreed to in 2019 by Mr Johnson as a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock.
In order to avoid a hard border in Ireland, it moved customs and food safety checks and processes to the Irish Sea, creating economic and administrative barriers on the movement of goods between Britain and the North.
The protocol is vehemently opposed by many unionists and the DUP is blocking the functioning of a devolved government in Stormont in protest at the arrangements.
Mr Lammy said: “Recent signs of progress on the protocol are promising – Rishi Sunak must press on and stand up to the ERG hardliners before this window of opportunity closes.
“With a UK government showing determination, diplomatic skill and hard work, and flexibility on both sides, the problems with the protocol are resolvable.
“If the government can reach a deal that delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland, the Labour Party stands ready to do what it takes to get it over the line.”