Progress between the EU and the UK on post-Brexit data-sharing has been hailed as a “positive step” in ongoing talks to find a solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol row.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris met European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in London on Monday, as London and Brussels try to find a way forward over post-Brexit arrangements in the region.
Both sides hailed an agreement in the area of data-sharing and EU access to British IT systems as a key step in resolving the row over the protocol, and which has left Northern Ireland without a devolved powersharing executive since early last year.
A joint statement, issued after the meeting, described it as “cordial and constructive”.
“They underlined the EU and UK’s shared commitment to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its parts, while protecting the integrity of both the EU single market and the UK internal market,” it said.
“They agreed that while a range of critical issues need to be resolved to find a way forward, an agreement was reached today on the way forward regarding the specific question of the EU’s access to UK IT systems.
“They noted this work was a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance, and provided a new basis for EU-UK discussions.”
The statement said that officials in London and Brussels would now “work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding”.
The men will “take stock of progress” next week.
Mr Cleverly, in a tweet after the meeting, said: “We share the same focus – finding the best outcome for Northern Ireland.
“Today’s progress on data-sharing marks a positive step in discussions on the NI Protocol.”
Downing Street said the data agreement was an “important step forward” and “a foundation for building further trust”.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “There are still significant issues at the heart of the protocol that need addressing.”
Mr Sefcovic called it a “new basis” for UK-EU discussions on the protocol, which has overshadowed Northern Irish politics since it was agreed as part of the Brexit deal in a bid to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But members of the unionist community are unhappy with the difficulties it creates for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to co-operate with forming a devolved Executive in Stormont until issues with the agreement are resolved.