Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said there was “a deal to be done” over the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland after “constructive talks” with her EU counterpart raised hopes of less rancorous relations with Brussels.
The notably sunny prognosis followed a first meeting with Maroš Šefčovič, the European commissioner responsible for Brexit issues, at Chevening, the cabinet minister’s official country residence in Kent.
In a joint EU-UK statement, a rarity in recent years, Truss and Šefčovič said intensive talks would begin next week to deal with the outstanding issues relating to Northern Ireland’s place within both the EU and UK’s internal market.
“We’ve had constructive talks with the EU,” Truss said in a later interview with the BBC. “We’re now going to go into intensive negotiations to work towards a negotiated solution to sort out these very real issues for the people of Northern Ireland.”
The foreign secretary played down the previous threats of triggering article 16 of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, under which the UK would suspend parts of the deal previously agreed with the EU.
She said: “What I want is a negotiated solution. I think there is a deal to be done. We have had constructive talks over the last day.
“Of course there is more work to do, and that is why we are intensifying the discussions. I will be seeing the vice-president again in a week’s time, and I do want to make progress. Clearly if we don’t make sufficient progress we will have to look at the alternatives, but my absolute desire is to get a deal that works for the people of Northern Ireland.”
The attempt to build strong personal relations with Šefčovič at Chevening, where the two politicians walked around the estate and dined on Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and apple pie, offered a clear sign that the government is seeking to reset relations after the resignation of Lord Frost, who often clashed with his opposing numbers in Brussels.
Major differences remain between the sides over the future implementation of the protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and draws a customs border down the Irish sea.
The EU has offered to cut in half the number of customs checks and reduce health and safety checks on meat, plant and dairy products by 80%.
The UK is insistent that the plans proposed do not yet live up to that promise and is pushing for a more radical overhaul that would ensure there are no checks on goods from Great Britain destined to stay in Northern Ireland.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, which leads Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, has demanded a timeline for enforcing the UK’s protocol demands.
Northern Ireland goes to the polls in May and there is an expectation that the two sides will seek to strike a deal ahead of that election.
Ireland’s foreign secretary, Simon Coveney, welcomed the improved mood music around the talks. He said: “I think it is a good thing that the Brexit issues and the protocol issues are back in the Foreign Office in London rather than in a separate unit led by Lord Frost.”