Northern Ireland protocol impasse back in the spotlight as King Charles joins discussions

A long-term solution for the ongoing dispute remains elusive.

Northern Ireland

King Charles made his first visit to Northern Ireland as monarch this week, where he quizzed the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party about its position on the controversial post-Brexit Northern Ireland deal.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the new monarch that there are positive sounds coming from the EU side and that he was hopeful matters would “progress.”

King Charles also spoke to Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill about the Northern Ireland Assembly and its current impasse.

In a speech at Hillsborough Castle, the monarch pledged to “seek the welfare” of all Northern Ireland’s people.

The King’s visit to Northern Ireland comes as the EU’s Brexit chief, Maros Sefcovic, has said he wants to reduce physical customs checks across the Irish Sea to just a few lorries a day in a bid to break the stalemate.

Truss urged to drop plans to override protocol unilaterally

Sefcovic said the EU is willing to compromise, but the proposals to cut protocol checks set out last October should be the basis for resuming talks.

He has urged Liz Truss to restart post-Brexit negotiations and drop her controversial proposal to override protocol unilaterally with new legislation.

The PM is expected to push for existing ‘grace periods’ – which waive a host of post-Brexit checks at Northern Ireland’s ports – to continue. The call is expected to come in a letter to the European Commission in coming days, as Britain responds to legal action by Brussels.

Such a move would be seen as a step back from the aggressive action of triggering Article 16, which would have risked intensifying the rift between the UK and the EU.

However, a long-term solution to the ongoing dispute remains elusive.

Two staunch Brexiteers to head up NI office

This week’s developments follow last week’s cabinet reshuffle, in which Truss appointed two staunch Brexiteers to head up the Northern Ireland office.

Chris Heaton-Harris is the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland and Steve Baker was announced new minister of state for Northern Ireland.

Both are former chairmen of the European Research Group (ERG), a secretive research group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs.

Heaton-Harris describes himself as a “fierce Eurosceptic” who has said he is committed to swiftly pressing ahead with legislation to end custom checks between Northern Ireland and the UK.

Famously, Heaton-Harris triggered uproar among academics in the UK in 2017 when he sent letters to university vice chancellors demanding the names of any scholars involved in teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit.”

Meanwhile, Steve Baker is to act as Heaton-Harris’ deputy in the Northern Ireland Office, replacing Belfast-born MP Conor Burns, who served in the Northern Ireland Office for a year.

The MP for Wycombe is a hard-line Brexiteer, who described the Northern Ireland protocol as “a thorn in the side of relations between us and Ireland.” He was among the first MPs to demand Therese May resigned as PM in 2018, and played a key role in the Brexiteer revolt which ultimately led to her demise.

Baker has supported the government’s controversial plans to reform the protocol. As foreign secretary, Liz Truss introduced legislation which would unilaterally scrap key part of the treaty agreed with the EU, including removing the need to check on goods between the UK and Northern Ireland.

Politicians representing the Irish nationalist side of the divide in Northern Ireland – who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and support the protocol agreement – reacted to the appointment of Baker with dismay, while noting how both Baker and Heaton-Harris are former chairs of the EU-sceptic ERG.

In appointing arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker to a ministerial role in Northern Ireland, Liz Truss has been accused of sending a “destructive message” to the EU.

Claire Hanna, MP of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland, branded the appointment “obnoxious” and a “red flag”, while claiming that Truss appeared to be “continuing down the diplomatically ignore route of her predecessor.”

Suggesting Truss has forgone an opportunity to “build bridges” in her first days as prime minister, Hanna said: “The appointment of another hard-line Eurosceptic to a senior position in the Northern Ireland Office is a red flag when issues related to the protocol remain politically sensitive,” she said.

“Liz Truss has an opportunity to make the case for a negotiated resolution with the European Union in the interests of people across these islands. These appointments seem in stark contrast to that objective.

“Elevating Steve Baker to NIO in particular is an obnoxious decision that will send a destructive message to the European Commission and to parties in Northern Ireland,” she added.

In contrast, unionists have welcomed the appointment of Baker, who shares many of their conservative Christian values, including opposition to abortion.

“At last we may have an NIO (Northern Ireland Office) ministerial team that really understands unionist concerns,” a Democratic Unionist lawmaker told Politico.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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