Irish leader: Brexit talks over N Ireland close to a deal

LONDON (AP) — Ireland's prime minister said Saturday that the U.K. and the European Union are “inching” closer to agreeing on a deal to resolve a thorny post-Brexit dispute in Northern Ireland.

Leo Varadkar told reporters that he believed an agreement may be possible within days. His comments came amid intense speculation that a breakthrough on months-long wrangling over the trading arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, is imminent.

“Certainly the deal isn’t done yet,” Varadkar told broadcaster RTE. ”But I do think we are inching towards conclusion."

“I would just encourage everyone to go the extra mile to come to an agreement because the benefits are huge," he added.

The U.K. and the EU have been at loggerheads over Northern Ireland — the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member, the Republic of Ireland — since the U.K.'s exit from the trade bloc became final in 2020.

When the U.K. 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 Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Under the agreement, there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. That angered British unionist politicians, who insist that the new trade border undermines Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland's power-sharing government has been nonfunctional since the Democratic Unionist Party walked out a year ago in protest of the protocol.

The party has insisted that the protocol must be scrapped or substantially changed, and any deal that the U.K. strikes with the EU must secure the backing of the DUP.

In an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak indicated that “anything that we do will tick all of those boxes,” referring to unionist concerns about the trade arrangements.

“I’m here all weekend trying to get it done,” Sunak said. “We’re giving it everything we’ve got.”

Sunak's office raised hopes that an agreement is close after it said “good progress” was made during a Friday call between Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

British media reported that von der Leyen would travel to the U.K. on Saturday to meet with Sunak and King Charles III, raising more speculation, but the visit didn't materialize.

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Sylvia Hui, The Associated Press