UK, EU Inch Closer to Deal Over N. Ireland Brexit Trade Spat

LONDON (AP) -- Britain's foreign minister is meeting politicians and businesspeople in Belfast on Wednesday, bearing good news: The U.K. and the European Union are inching closer to settling a post-Brexit trade dispute that has brought economic headaches and political turmoil to Northern Ireland.

James Cleverly is traveling to Belfast two days after Britain and the EU made a significant breakthrough, striking a data-sharing agreement that will give the EU access to real-time information about goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.

The two sides said the agreement is "a critical prerequisite to building trust and providing assurance" -- things that have been in short supply since Britain left the bloc in 2020 -- and provided "a new basis for EU-U.K. discussions."

Cleverly and chief EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic said officials from the two sides would "work rapidly to scope the potential for solutions in different areas on the basis of this renewed understanding."

The British government denied the two sides were in the home straight toward a deal but said the talks had taken an "important step forward."

Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris nonetheless face tough meetings in Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member nation. British unionist politicians there are fiercely opposed to the post-Brexit trading arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

When Britain left the bloc, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. Unionists say the new trade border undermines Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. They are boycotting Belfast's power-sharing government, leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning administration for most of the past year.

The U.K. government is keen to solve the trade issues and break the political impasse before the 25th anniversary in April of Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace accord. It is pinning its hopes on striking a deal with the EU that would ease the checks and coax unionists back into the government.

"What people in Northern Ireland want most is to see their elected politicians back at work," Heaton-Harris said. "Accountable political leadership is fundamental to secure a sustainable future for all."

But Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party that is refusing to share power with the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein, warned that "the Protocol was not, is not and will not be supported by unionists."

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who took office in October after a year of turmoil for the governing Conservative Party, has taken a more emollient approach to the EU than his pugnacious predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and the government now acknowledges that Brexit has brought an economic cost for Britain.

Sunak is a long-time Brexit supporter, but also a pragmatist who has made repairing the economy his top priority.

Public opinion has shifted since British voters opted by a 52%-48% margin to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum. Now, polls suggest a majority would vote to rejoin.