10 Downing Street has apparently taken over supervision of attempts to break the controversial Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol deadlock.
Northern Ireland's Secretary of State finally admitted last week that the pre-Christmas Stormont Assembly election he threatened will now not take place.
Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris’ U-turn, which lost him much credibility among political parties, was followed within days by a meeting in Egypt by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
When the two met for the first time at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh on Monday, they agreed to “work together” to end the dispute over the Protocol.
At the same time, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič suggested to a meeting of British and European parliamentarians in Westminster that a UK-EU agreement on trade checks between Britain and Northern Ireland could happen within weeks, with the right “political will.”
Šefčovič, who is Europe’s Brexit negotiator, told the meeting, “This is the area where we do not seek any political victory. We just want to solve the problem.”
He did not believe the EU and the UK were “worlds apart” on the Protocol, a post-Brexit arrangement to ensure there is not a hard border on the island of Ireland.
At the same meeting, Britain’s Europe Minister Leo Docherty signaled a proper return to EU-UK negotiations when he hinted the bill to tear up the Protocol was in the House of Lords where it was likely to be delayed.
He added, “We are not expediting the progress of that bill. Many of you will know that laws, like sausages, take time to be made and they are quite slow.
“It is going through its normal course through the legislative procedure. We’re not expediting it, but we’re not halting it. We’re just letting it go forward as it would.”
In Egypt, Sunak stressed to von der Leyen the need to “find solutions” to the “very real problems” caused by the Protocol, which is cited as the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) main reason for refusing to return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
That’s why Heaton-Harris threatened to order a Stormont election if the DUP didn’t agree to power-sharing by a deadline of October 28. When the deadline passed, and the DUP didn’t budge, Heaton-Harris failed to make the order, a clear sign that Downing Street had taken charge of the situation.
Von der Leyen called her talk with Sunak a “good first meeting.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was also expected to have side talks with both Sunak and von der Leyen in the bid to break the North’s stalemate.
The Egypt meetings followed a call by Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald at her party’s weekend Ard Fheis for joint authority by Dublin and London as “plan B” if power-sharing is not restored in Northern Ireland.
*This column first appeared in the November 9 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.