Can Starmer solve Ireland’s Brexit woes? Labour leader visits Belfast today for meeting with Irish premier Varadkar
Irish premier Leo Varadkar and UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer are to travel to Belfast on Thursday as efforts to resolve the dispute over the protocol ramp up.
The Taoiseach and Sir Keir are to meet with the main Stormont parties to discuss the deadlock over the post-Brexit protocol, which the DUP party has cited as its reason for boycotting Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions since May.
Sir Keir has planned a two-day visit to the region, his first since June.
It comes after a row broke out ahead of a meeting with the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and the five main parties on Wednesday, which Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she was not allowed in to.
Sinn Fein subsequently refused to attend the meeting at all, as did the other main nationalist party, the SDLP.
Unionist representatives suggested it was a diplomatic issue that led to the snub, that Mr Cleverly could not meet Irish opposition leader Ms McDonald before his Irish counterpart.
The meeting was overshadowed by the dispute, after being convened to discuss how to resolve the stalemate over the protocol, a set of post-Brexit trade rules agreed by the EU and UK aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The protocol has become a contentious political issue, with the DUP refusing to engage with the powersharing institutions until it is dramatically altered or removed.
But several recent developments have indicated a breakthrough may be possible, including a customs data-sharing agreement between the EU and UK, which has been hailed as a positive step.
Another indication of goodwill was the admission made by Mr Varadkar that “we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit” after he returned to the office of Taoiseach in December.
He also said he understands unionist concerns that the treaty has made them feel less British, striking a conciliatory tone at the start of his premiership.
Mr Varadkar’s visit to Northern Ireland on Thursday is his first since taking over from Micheal Martin as Taoiseach.
Mr Martin, now Ireland’s deputy leader and foreign affairs minister, is also due to take part in several engagements in Northern Ireland on Thursday, including a meeting with the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris in Hillsborough.
The Tanaiste will travel to Armagh to visit the secretariat of the North South Ministerial Council, established under the Good Friday Agreement, which has not met since November 2021.
Mr Martin is also to launch a new Shared Island Civic Society Fund and due to meet with victims and survivors of Troubles-related violence.
The Irish government has emphasised that scheduling the two visits on the same day is a sign of its commitment to resolving the row over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Pressure to restore the Stormont Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive are particularly pronounced ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, where a visit from the US President Joe Biden is possible.
Press Association – Gráinne Ní Aodha, Jonathan McCambridge and Rebecca Black