Irish premier hopeful deal can be reached in post-Brexit row

LONDON (AP) — Irish premier Leo Varadkar said after meeting with political leaders in Northern Ireland Thursday that he remained hopeful an agreement can be reached between the European Union and the U.K. over post-Brexit trade disputes in the region.

Varadkar and Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, each met with the main parties in Belfast to try to resolve the bitter political deadlock over the post-Brexit arrangements, which have paralyzed Northern Ireland’s government and brought a prolonged economic headache.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government collapsed almost a year ago when the Democratic Unionist Party quit in protest against the trading barriers created by the arrangements known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

When the U.K. left the EU, the British government and the EU agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, new arrangements introduced checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. Unionists are fiercely opposed to the measures, arguing that the new trade border undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

The DUP is continuing to boycott the regional government until the protocol is drastically altered or removed.

Varadkar said Thursday he was “keen to repair and restore relations” with Northern Ireland’s political parties — as well as between the EU and U.K.

“I am hopeful that it will be possible to come to an agreement on the protocol that will allow it to work more effectively, hopefully become more acceptable broadly across society here and will then allow the institutions to be re-established,” he said.

He acknowledged that the protocol had been too rigidly implemented, and expressed hope for a return to “a very low number of checks” for goods.

However, Varadkar said that a deal over the protocol did not guarantee the power-sharing government can be restored.

“Obviously our desire is that we should have the first thing happen, which is an agreement on the protocol, then unlocking the restoration of the (Northern Ireland) assembly and the executive. But it’s not a given that one follows the other,” he said.

The talks were overshadowed by a dispute over the exclusion of Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald from a meeting with Britain’s foreign secretary earlier in the week.

Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, said Thursday the parties were not “anywhere close to a deal.”

“At the moment, while some progress has been made on some technical issues, there are major political issues in those negotiations that have not yet been addressed,” he told the BBC.

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