British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions in London
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions in the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, November, December 14, 2022. Reuters

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met with the main political parties in Northern Ireland on Thursday in his first visit to the region since taking office in October.

The talks were expected to focus on a dispute over post-Brexit trade rules governing the region, which has blocked a normalisation of relations between Britain and the European Union and plunged local politics into crisis.

Following a lengthy stalemate, Britain and the European Union resumed talks in October on how to fix problems relating to the Northern Ireland protocol, which introduced checks last year on some goods coming from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The EU has said it is "very confident" a positive conclusion is within reach if Britain shows the political will.

Any deal would need to overcome opposition within Sunak's Conservative Party and Northern Ireland's largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sunak's office posted a picture of him posing after the talks with the leaders of the five main parties, including the DUP and Irish nationalists Sinn Fein.

The DUP in February withdrew from Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, a key part of a 1998 peace deal, in protest at the trade checks. Neither the power-sharing government or the Stormont Assembly can function without the DUP's support.

Sunak's meetings follow a roundtable with party leaders hosted by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland earlier in the day to discuss solutions to the return of power-sharing government in the region.

Sunak was also due to meet with businesses and communities in Northern Ireland.

The trip will mark the "return of naval shipbuilding in Northern Ireland," the statement said, in reference to a proposed deal to assemble three Royal Navy Solid Support Ships at Harland & Wolff's shipyard in Belfast.

(Writing by Conor Humphries, reporting by Amanda Ferguson, editing by James Davey and Deepa Babington)