UPDATE 1-Gaps remain between UK, EU in N.Ireland talks

(Adds foreign minister comments after meetings)

By Amanda Ferguson and Elizabeth Piper

BALLYNAHINCH, Northern Ireland, Jan 11 (Reuters) – There are still genuine differences between British and European Union negotiators that could take some time to resolve if talks on revising post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland are to succeed, Britain’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.

James Cleverly was speaking after meeting political and business leaders in Northern Ireland to discuss difficulties about the trading arrangements after a mellowing in a years-long standoff yielded some progress this week.

“Optimism is great, having a spirit of optimism is important but there are still genuine differences and they can’t just be wished away, they need to be resolved and sometimes that does take some time,” Cleverly told reporters.

The post-Brexit trading arrangements, the so-called Northern Ireland protocol agreed with the European Union, has put strains not only on the British-run province but also on ties between London and Brussels over the deal.

But over the last few months, the tone of talks to try to resolve differences over the protocol has softened, with the antagonism that marked the discussions since 2019 replaced by what appears to be a new push to find a negotiated settlement.

Cleverly said years of negotiating through social media and “shouting from afar” had not worked and that Monday’s agreement on a way forward on the sharing live data with the EU showed the new tone of discussing differences discretely was working.

London has to walk a fine line. Ministers want a negotiated settlement with the EU rather than triggering another legal dispute over the Brexit deal, but also must keep on board unionist politicians in the province who have led a near year-long boycott of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

Wednesday’s meetings are the latest in a flurry of renewed diplomacy since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was appointed in October. Talks on solving the issues with the protocol had all but stalled under his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who spoke to the leaders of the main Northern Irish parties by phone on Monday, will be in Belfast on Thursday for a series of meetings.

The protocol was put in place to try to preserve the 1998 peace deal by avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, but it also meant the province all but remained in the bloc’s single market for goods, requiring checks on some products arriving from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Britain has refused to implement many of the checks and has criticised the EU for being overly zealous in implementing the protocol, hurting businesses in the province and straining ties between political groups. Brussels has said it is open to being flexible on the protocol but has refused to rewrite it.

London is also keen to solve the issue to help get Northern Ireland’s regional assembly up and running again – something the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) says cannot happen until the checks have gone.

“The EU is going to have to give ground and so far apart from tinkering around the edges of the protocol, we haven’t seen that from the EU,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters following the meeting with Cleverly. (Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

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