The European Union and the UK have agreed that “scoping work” to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol should continue in a constructive spirit, the two sides said in a joint statement on Monday, January 16.

The statement followed a video call between British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič. 

Here's the 🇪🇺🇬🇧 joint statement after my video call with @JamesCleverly & @chhcalling:

Agreed that our scoping work for potential solutions will continue in a constructive, collaborative spirit, taking careful account of each other's legitimate interests.

— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) January 16, 2023

Their apparent progress, which includes cautious diplomatic belief that there is still a lot of work ahead for the two sides, follows last week’s disastrous blunder when Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was refused attendance at a meeting of all political parties with Cleverly in Northern Ireland.

This is a time for inclusive, good faith engagement. It is regrettable & bizarre that the British Govt chose to exclude the leader of Sinn Féin from today's party leaders meeting. I remain determined to work constructively with all to get the Executive & Assembly working for all

— Mary Lou McDonald (@MaryLouMcDonald) January 11, 2023

The mainly Catholic SDLP refused to attend the Cleverly meeting as a gesture of support for Sinn Féin, leaving the foreign secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to hear only the views of unionists and the cross-community Alliance Party. 

The SDLP has always stood by the principle of maximum inclusion in talks. We will not take part in a process today that excludes the Leader of Sinn Féin.

We have proposals to get the Assembly back that we want to put to other parties in inclusive talks. That needs to happen.

— The SDLP (@SDLPlive) January 11, 2023

Desperate explanations by the British government, claiming Cleverly couldn’t talk to the leader of the Republic’s opposition before he formally met Dublin’s foreign affairs minister, were laughably outrageous.

However, work by civil servants on the Protocol which ensures a continuing soft Irish trade border alongside a structure that permits customs checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain continued over the weekend despite Britain’s snub to McDonald. 

As a result, Monday’s statement from Cleverly and Šefčovič prompted one EU source to say that talks were still on a positive track and that agreement on a number of issues was “close.” 

But Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he does not believe the deal on the Protocol is close and he played down talk of a deadline for a deal before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10. 

He said, “I was encouraged by what James Cleverly said last week. He said two things. First of all, there isn’t a deadline here. They are not working to a timetable; they want to get the right deal. 

"And secondly, he said that it has to be a deal that works for everyone in Northern Ireland, including unionists. 

“So I think the government recognizes that if the objective here is to restore political stability, is to get an outcome that replaces the Protocol with arrangements that unionists, as well as nationalists, can support, then rushing at this and getting the wrong deal isn’t what we need to restore political stability in Northern Ireland.” 

Donaldson also stressed that his party's position has not changed and that it will only agree to go back into power-sharing at Stormont if the Protocol dispute is resolved to its satisfaction. 

An EU official said Cleverly and Šefčovič will meet again in the coming days to review progress. 

*This column first appeared in the January 18 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.