London and Brussels still have “genuine differences” over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, despite the first tangible signs of progress in ending a bitter deadlock, the UK foreign secretary said on Wednesday.
On a visit to meet politicians and business leaders in the region, where the impasse has paralysed politics for months, James Cleverly said he would not be rushed into signing a deal with Brussels on the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol without ensuring it was sustainable.
But he triggered a local dispute by refusing to allow Mary Lou McDonald, head of the all-island nationalist Sinn Féin party, to attend talks. McDonald is also leader of the opposition in the Republic of Ireland and diplomatic convention dictates that he should first meet his Irish counterpart.
The incident — which McDonald slammed as “bizarre” and a “petulant”, political act — illustrated London’s challenges in navigating the region’s delicate tensions. The Democratic Unionist party, the biggest pro-UK party, has vetoed NI’s political institutions for months to demand sweeping changes to the post-Brexit deal.
“We’re not setting timelines. We’re not setting deadlines. We want to resolve these [protocol] issues as quickly as we can, but there are still gaps that need to be resolved,” Cleverly told reporters.
“Having good mood music [with Brussels] is important . . . [but] on its own it’s not enough . . . there are still genuine differences and they can’t just be wished away,” he added.
The DUP has vetoed the Stormont assembly and power-sharing executive since elections in May last year. It has said that it will do so until its demands for sweeping changes to the protocol, including ending a customs border for goods in the Irish Sea, are met.
But Cleverly said that “having the parties coming back to Stormont and getting resolution on the Northern Ireland Protocol are not necessarily interlinked”. Restoring institutions was a decision for the region’s elected representatives, he added.
Deirdre Heenan, professor at Ulster university, called the exclusion of McDonald from Wednesday’s meeting, in a week when welcome progress had been made on the protocol, “a completely avoidable PR disaster”.
One business leader who met Cleverly said he was shocked and that it was evidence of a tin ear by London in a region where politics rests on a delicate balance between nationalist and unionist communities.
Owing to Cleverly’s decision, Sinn Féin sent no one to the meeting and the smaller nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party also stayed away.
The dispute came after London and Brussels this week secured a tentative deal that would give Brussels access to the UK’s IT systems for trade across the Irish Sea — a breakthrough after months of acrimony.
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson demanded more flexibility from Brussels, telling reporters: “The EU is going to have to give ground.”
The talks came as both sides stepped up efforts to find a speedy solution, ideally ahead of the 25th anniversary in April of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended Northern Ireland’s three decades of conflict known as the Troubles.
Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who helped clinch the protocol deal in 2019, will hold talks in Belfast with leaders on Thursday.
Donaldson said real progress had not yet been made by Brussels beyond “tinkering around the edges of the protocol”. He added that oversight of the accord by the European Court of Justice was a DUP red line and “unfair”.