EU and UK officials will explore ways in which the Northern Ireland Protocol can be made less burdensome by taking a more risk-based approach to the most sensitive issues, such as the movements of food consignments going to Northern supermarkets and the ability for pets to move back and forth across the Irish Sea, RTÉ News understands.

During last night's dinner in Brussels, it's understood that the EU's Maroš Šefcovic and his opposite number David Frost, tasked officials to look in detail at what the risk to the single market might be in the most sensitive areas, and to explore ways in which the risk might be mitigated.

Senior officials have described a long period of technical discussions whereby the UK would move to fully implement the Protocol, and in tandem the EU would explore ways of assessing the true risk to public health of food from Great Britain entering Northern Ireland, or to the integrity of the single market.

It's understood that in the short term, officials may be in a position to alleviate some of the Protocol's requirements around guide dogs being taken back and forth across the Irish Sea, as well as the movement of animals to trade fairs.

However, officials on both sides have stressed that the exercise will be long and highly technical, and EU sources say that while officials in Brussels will do their utmost to find flexibilities, there will be limits.

The ongoing technical talks will take weeks, if not months, officials say.

However, both sides have said there is a good and constructive spirit, marked by a notable thaw in relations, following months of acrimony.


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In an interview with RTÉ News, Maroš Šefcovic, the European Commission vice president and the co-chair of the EU UK Joint Committee, said the chemistry between himself and Lord Frost had improved in recent weeks, and both had agreed to restore a hotline that would be used to forestall any sudden disputes.

"Let's call each other, let's not surprise each other, let's not be unilateral in what we do, and have this joint approach", he said.

"In that case we can also guarantee that there will be support for [the process], that it will bring positive results. This is exactly what Ireland and Northern Ireland need," he told RTÉ News.

Mr Šefcovic said it was clear from his meeting with Lord Frost in Brussels that the UK respected the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

"David is very clear on the areas which he feels are very sensitive," Mr Šefcovic said. "Of course I understand that. We are telling them what are the very sensitive areas for us.

"So we need to find ways where we can build bridges over these problems.

"I hope with good faith negotiations, and if we really put our minds to it, we can resolve the problems which are on the table."

Officials say it is not yet clear how and when an overarching agreement on the implementation of the Protocol might be reached.

They are expected to look in granular detail at the most sensitive UK concerns around the movement of food consignments and to explore the precise risk that products produced in Great Britain might pose to public health or the integrity of the single market.

Officials suggest that if the risk is deemed to be low, then a more pragmatic interpretation of the Protocol could be applied, and that in turn could limit or reduce the need for costs and paperwork for supermarket suppliers.

It's understood the EU is placing a strong emphasis on the trust and goodwill that would be generated if the UK meets clear milestones in completing the infrastructure required for the Protocol to operate.

Senior EU officials have also said they acknowledge the difficulty the UK has had in granting access to its import clearance IT systems.

Under the Protocol, EU officials working in Northern Ireland and officials in member states, are to be given real time access to HMRC databases so as to get a true picture of the goods that are entering Northern Ireland - and by extension the single market - from Great Britain.

It's understood that the IT system in the UK is not yet fully ready to handle goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and for goods entering Great Britain from the EU.