Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is holding talks with Stormont leaders as speculation mounts that a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol could be close.
Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris are meeting the politicians near Belfast to discuss the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Following his visit to Northern Ireland, Sunak is set to join European leaders in Germany this weekend for the Munich Security Conference and the protocol is likely to feature in discussions on the margins.
There is mounting speculation that a deal between the EU and UK could be unveiled early next week.
However, Irish deputy premier Micheal Martin has cautioned that he believes there is a “distance to go yet” before an agreement between the UK and the EU is over the line.
In another apparent sign of progress, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will travel to Brussels for a meeting with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.
The five main Stormont parties – Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP – were invited for individual meetings with Sunak on Friday morning.
The cross-community Alliance Party was the first in to meet the Prime Minister at a hotel on the outskirts of Belfast.
The UK and the EU have been engaged in substantive negotiations over the workings of the protocol, agreed to ensure the free movement of goods across the Irish land border after Brexit.
The protocol instead created economic barriers on trade being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It has proven to be deeply unpopular with unionists, who claim it has weakened Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, and the DUP has collapsed the powersharing institutions at Stormont in protest at the arrangements.
A number 10 spokeswoman said the Prime Minister was meeting Northern Ireland parties as part of the “engagement process”.
She added: “Whilst talks with the EU are ongoing, ministers continue to engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.”
The Foreign Office also confirmed Cleverly’s Brussels meeting with Sefcovic, saying it was part of “ongoing engagement and constructive dialogue with the EU to find practical solutions that work for the people of Northern Ireland”.
While it is understood the EU and the UK are close to signing off a deal that would reduce protocol red tape on the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, there is no expectation that Brussels is willing to agree to end the application of EU law in the region.
The EU says a fundamental plank of the protocol – namely that Northern Ireland traders can sell freely into the European single market – is dependent on the operation of EU rules in the region.
Deputy chairman of the ERG David Jones tweeted on Thursday: “The Protocol won’t be fixed by displaying green and red signs and pretending the ECJ hasn’t got supreme jurisdiction in Northern Ireland when it manifestly has.
“NI must cease to be subject to laws made in Brussels. It’s as simple as that. Anything less won’t work.”
Press Association – Jonathan McCambridge and David Young