Brexit deadline looms as Sunak prepares to host Biden

Northern Ireland: Varadkar discusses protocol row in July

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Rishi Sunak has been warned the clock is ticking if he and Ireland’s returning Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are to set aside their Brexit differences prior to the visit of US President Joe Biden in the spring. Fine Gael leader Mr Varadkar, reinstalled in the top job in accordance with an agreement struck with coalition partners Fianna Fail, attempted to mend fences with London today by admitting he had made “mistakes” in his approach to Brexit negotiations after the 2016 referendum.

The move was hailed in some quarters as a bid to inject optimism into the process of resolving problems centred on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the mechanism for preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland which Unionist critics say has driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Nevertheless, not everybody was convinced, with ex-Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib accusing the qualified GP of “false contrition” and doubting his commitment to the process.

Beverley Nielsen, an Associate Professor at Birmingham City University, said: “If ever there were a chance to sort out the thorny issue of the NI Protocol perhaps it is now.

“It may not appear to be top of Rishi Sunak’s 2023 ‘to do’ list, but if sorted it could unlock a host of opportunities.

“The two leaders of Ireland and UK, Leo Varadkar and Rishi Sunak, share an Indian background as India celebrates 75 years of independence. In my view both, by nature and circumstances, will be inclined towards compromise and the conclusion of a deal of the Protocol.”

Nevertheless, with the Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary approaching April – and an anticipated trip from US President Joe Biden for King Charles III to host in Belfast in recognition of the role played by the US in facilitating the GFA – the two “bright, young leaders have their work cut out for them”, she stressed. 

Prof Nielsen added: “Both need to secure a fresh agreement on the Protocol with each other and the EU, including with Unionist buy-in so Stormont can get back to work and celebrate this historic milestone with some US goodwill in the bank, auguring the possibility of more favourable US-UK trade talks on a long-awaited and much-vaunted US Trade Deal.” 

Steven McCabe, likewise an associate professor at the university, said: “The approach by Ireland’s new PM, Leo Varadkar, to admit to ‘mistakes on all sides’ will undoubtedly be welcome by the current incumbent of No. 10 and many around him who, having an overload of critical issues to deal with, would prefer to avoid more spats with Europe over Northern Ireland.

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“This is particularly so, in view of the impending visit of US President Joe Biden to celebrate the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in early April, when a united front against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is essential.”

The border issue in Ireland was always the most problematic aspect of Brexit, Prof McCabe declared.

He said: “Almost seven years after the referendum and two years after a deal agreed between Johnson and the EU which allowed NI to continue in the single market – effectively pretending the border is irrelevant – its impact continues to be significant.

“The economic reality of Brexit is that it’s making British citizens poorer and, as the referendum showed, Northern Ireland voted to remain as part of the EU.

“Indeed, a record number of Irish passports were issued last year, many to those north of the border who claim to be proudly British.”

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Mr McCabe continued: “Worryingly, using NI as a weapon in the proxy war against the EU will be all too great for Brexiters. 

“This increases the potential for conflict in this part of the UK. As such, Sunak will need all his skills to balance the needs of peace, the economy, and a harmonious relationship with our closest neighbours with the realpolitik of maintenance of stability within his own party.” 

Mr Varadkar previously told reporters: “I’m sure we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit.

“There was no road map, no manual, it wasn’t something that we expected would happen and we’ve all done our best to deal with it.”

“Again, I look forward to travelling to Northern Ireland early in the new year, meeting with all the parties and reaching out to all parties and all communities in an effort to find a solution.” 

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