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Irish foreign minister: UK-EU talks still challenging, complex

In this file photo taken on Dec 11, 2017 pro-EU protesters wave EU and Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in central London. (BEN STANSALL / AFP)

BELFAST — Very challenging and complex issues remain to be resolved in talks between British and European Union negotiators on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland despite recent progress, Irish Foreign Minister Michéal Martin said on Thursday.

Britain on Monday agreed to a way forward on sharing with Brussels live data on Northern Ireland trade, a step towards resolving longstanding issues arising from the trading arrangements under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol was put in place to try to preserve the 1998 peace deal by avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland

Martin's comments follow a similar note of caution from British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who on Wednesday said there were still genuine differences between the two sides that could take some time to resolve.

READ MORE: UK-EU rift deepens over N Ireland protocol

"The issues are very challenging and they're complex, particularly as you get into the weeds. I welcome the progress that has been made," Martin told reporters after talks with Britain's Northern Ireland minister, Chris Heaton-Harris.

The protocol was put in place to try to preserve the 1998 peace deal by avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

But it left the region effectively in the bloc's single market for goods, requiring checks on some products arriving from the rest of the United Kingdom, angerinng pro-British unionists.

Britain has refused to implement many of the checks and has criticised the EU for being overly zealous in implementing the protocol, which it says has hurt businesses in the province and deepened a political stand-off in the region. Brussels has said it is open to being flexible but has refused to rewrite the protocol.

Bloomberg reported on Thursday that the EU and Britain are preparing to enter an intense phase of negotiations – a negotiating "tunnel" – as soon as next week, quoting people familiar with the matter.

Asked about the report, Martin said he was not going to comment on timelines and that it was important to give the talks space.

His words were echoed by a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who repeated Cleverly's response that Britain was not setting deadlines, calling the report "speculation".

READ MORE: Fix it or ditch it, UK's Johnson warns EU on N. Ireland deal

"We do want to resolve these issues quickly but there are still significant gaps that need to be resolved," the spokesperson told reporters, adding "key issues" remained.

Despite progress on customs data sharing, London and Brussels might have more difficulty in agreeing other issues such as the role of the European Court of Justice in trade disputes.

In the latest flurry of diplomacy, Cleverly and Heaton-Harris are due to meet EU Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic on Monday.