Taoiseach Micheál Martin will discuss the Northern Ireland protocol with British prime minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday when the two men hold their first meeting on the fringes of the British-Irish Council in Blackpool.
The meeting comes following the decision of the British government to extend the deadline for calling fresh elections to the Stormont Assembly, announced by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris in Westminster on Wednesday.
Mr Heaton-Harris had pledged to call new elections but reversed his position after the Irish Government strongly advised Downing Street that new elections would only serve to deepen divisions in the North.
Despite the greatly improved atmosphere between London and Brussels and the resumption of technical talks on the protocol, senior Irish Government sources remain sceptical about the prospects for a breakthrough in the coming weeks.
They have not yet seen evidence that a substantial change in the British position is in preparation, say sources, and doubt that Mr Sunak has the political strength to take on the strongly Eurosceptic wing of his party in order to make the concessions that could secure a new deal.
There is an expectation that the British will seek a relaxation of the protocol rules, for example for goods imported into Northern Ireland for supermarkets which do not operate in the Republic. However, sources say that Brussels is unlikely to countenance further concessions unless there is an overarching agreement that settles the protocol difficulties.
Irish officials continue to stress that it is the European Commission that negotiates with the United Kingdom, not the Irish Government — though Dublin remains closely involved.
The British government has said the deadline for restoring the Assembly — which was passed on October 28th — is to be extended for up to 12 weeks, until January 19th.
Assembly members’ pay is to be cut while the political limbo in Northern Ireland continues.
The new deadline could mean a fresh Assembly election in mid-April when Northern Ireland will also mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement. The April anniversary is now regarded by many officials as “the real deadline” for solving the difficulties on the protocol.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney welcomed the postponement of the elections, saying it “provides further space for early substantive progress in discussions between the EU and UK on the issues of most concern to people and business in Northern Ireland”.
Responding to the announcement by Mr Heaton-Harris in the House of Commons on Wednesday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his party’s position that “if the Secretary of State wants to restore Stormont, then he must ensure the [UK] government replaces the protocol with arrangements that unionists can support. Progress is only made in Northern Ireland when there is a foundation based on the consent of unionists and nationalists.”
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Assembly or Executive since the last election in May when the DUP refused to re-enter the powersharing institutions until its demands regarding the Northern Ireland protocol are met.
On Wednesday, Mr Heaton-Harris addressed “those who have called for ‘joint authority’ of Northern Ireland in recent days” and said “this won’t be considered. The UK Government is absolutely clear that the consent principle governs the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, under which Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom.”
He added: “We will not support any arrangements that are inconsistent with that principle.” And he added that the British government remained “fully committed to the long-established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland affairs”.