Shipbuilding is to be revived in Belfast after 20 years as part of a £1.6bn Ministry of Defence contract for three new naval vessels, Rishi Sunak has announced.
A consortium led by the shipyard Harland and Wolff has secured the preferred bidder status which will create 1,200 jobs across three companies, 900 of which will be in Belfast.
The final assembly of all three ships will take place at the shipyard famous for building the Titanic and the Samson and Goliath cranes.
“Northern Ireland – its people and its future – are rightly at the centre of our shipbuilding ambitions,” said Sunak. The prime minister was visiting Northern Ireland on Thursday to meet politicians as part of efforts to break the impasse over the Brexit trade arrangements and get the Democratic Unionist party back to Stormont.
Sunak’s first visit to Belfast as prime minister comes as the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, met in Brussels to discuss negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The prime minister met political leaders after a summit with the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, to apply pressure to restore power sharing.
Šefčovič said he had a “constructive” meeting with Cleverly in Brussels and they were both “determined to find joint solutions” that work for all. “I want us to make the most of this window of opportunity,” he tweeted.
Cleverly tweeted that the discussions had been “important”, echoing Brussels’ “determination” to find a deal.
The DUP has refused to form an executive at Stormont since the local elections confirmed Sinn Féin as the biggest party last May. The boycott is centred on objections to mandatory EU checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, including the use of international-style customs declaration forms.
The EU and the UK are aiming to get the outlines of a deal by mid January, in time for the next legal deadline for a Stormont election to be called. They say that if “some sort of heads of agreement” could be struck on the landing zone for a deal, the details could be determined in talks in the next two or three months.
One of the main bones of contention is the customs declarations required for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The UK’s suggestion for a green lane at Northern Irish ports for trucks carrying goods destined to remain in Northern Ireland is considered “very difficult” for the EU, which is determined Ireland does not become a porous border into the single market.
The UK believes the green lane has a chance of winning the backing of the DUP, but it would have to be combined with a system of “significant” fines for any supplier who abused the system, and “robust” market surveillance.
The DUP is keen to ensure that goods meeting UK standards can go through the green channel as long as they can formally guarantee the goods remain in Northern Ireland. This would also be a challenge for Brussels, particularly as it would require an element of trust, which is still in short supply after Boris Johnson’s premiership.
“This is all very difficult territory for the EU,” one Westminster source said. “They have never before outsourced their border and there is so little trust of the UK, but it could offer the DUP a landing zone.”
Soundings have also been taken about a landing zone for Eurosceptics in the European Research Group. It is thought they are backing the Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker’s paper, which suggests updating the Brexit trade agreement by adding a “customs cooperation chapter” and changing the protocol to include a dispute mechanism that does not involve the European court of justice.