Liz Truss targets Northern Ireland Protocol deal by end of March

Liz Truss held face-to-face talks with Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, on Thursday – Simon Dawson/Number 10 Downing Street

Liz Truss on Thursday told the EU she wants a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol by the end of March in her first face-to-face meeting with the bloc’s Brexit negotiator.

The two sides are expected to agree a new timetable for intensive talks over measures to avoid a hard border in an attempt to broker a compromise before the forthcoming Stormont elections.

After a slippery start to the talks when Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice-president, stumbled on an icy step while meeting Ms Truss at Chevening House, the Foreign Secretary’s country residence, the pair said a deal was needed to ensure peace and stability in the province.

The UK and EU believe the best way to achieve this is by brokering a pact to reduce the number of trade checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain before May’s ballot.

“We want an agreement very quickly to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland,” a government source told The Telegraph. “Liz wants the pace to be slightly quicker. All she wants is both sides to agree to intensive talks and the deal to be done really quickly.”

Liz Truss reacts as Maros Sefcovic stumbles on an icy step before the talks – Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

The Telegraph understands that the Northern Ireland elections are a definite factor in the Foreign Office’s thinking. Officials have yet to agree on the length of the “purdah” period before they take place on May 5.

Brussels has also signalled that a deal by the end of March would be favourable for the EU, with officials confirming that it is vital to reach an agreement before the elections.

“We want it sorted as soon as possible, for certainty and stability in Northern Ireland above all else,” an EU source said.

Officials and diplomats in Brussels believe the elections will give Ms Truss enough scope to compromise in the negotiations to ensure they do not overshadow the campaign period. “We’re already taking bets on when Britain’s annual Brexit climbdown will come,” one diplomat said.

Ms Truss and Mr Sefcovic are expected to agree on Friday to an accelerated timetable for talks to cut the number of checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which the Government argues are having a chilling effect on trade.

The Foreign Secretary said: “My priority is defending the Union and protecting the peace. I will be putting forward constructive proposals to help communities and businesses in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Sefcovic said: “My objective: stability, predictability in Northern Ireland.”

Downing Street and Brussels are keen to avoid the Stormont elections becoming a referendum over the protocol, which the DUP and other unionists want to be abolished because they fear it has driven a wedge between the province and Great Britain.