By Robin Emmott and Padraic Halpin
BRUSSELS/DUBLIN (Reuters) - The United Kingdom and Ireland could reach agreement in the coming hours on how to run their post-Brexit land border, a senior Irish official said, in a deal that would remove the last obstacle to opening free trade talks with the European Union.
A carefully choreographed attempt to showcase the progress of Brexit talks collapsed at the last minute on Dec. 4 when the Northern Irish party which props up Prime Minister Theresa May's government vetoed a draft deal already agreed with Ireland.
Since then, May has been scrambling to clinch a deal on the new UK-EU land border in Ireland that is acceptable to the European Union, Dublin, her own lawmakers and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which keeps her government in power.
"It is moving quite quickly at the moment. Negotiations are continuing," a senior Irish official said told a British Irish Chamber of Commerce event in Brussels.
"I think we are going to work over the next couple of hours with the UK government to close this off. I say hours because I think we are very close."
Moving to talks about trade and a Brexit transition are crucial for the future of May's premiership, and to keep trade flowing between the world’s biggest trading bloc and its sixth largest national economy after Britain leaves on March 29, 2019.
But the EU will only move to trade talks if there is enough progress on three key issues: the money Britain must pay to the EU; rights for EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU; and how to avoid a hard border with Ireland.
As speculation swirled about whether London, Dublin and Brussels were about to clinch a border deal, European Council President Donald Tusk's office said he would brief reporters at 0650 GMT on Friday before departing for Hungary.
Earlier, a spokesman for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said May had an effective deadline of Sunday night if she wanted to seal a deal and hope to have agreement on trade talks in time for the EU summit on Dec. 14-15.
All sides say they want to avoid a return to a hard border between EU member Ireland and the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland, which might upset the peace established after decades of violence.
But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) insists that Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, must leave the EU in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Thursday that May would propose suggestions to Brexit negotiators in an attempt to break the impasse.
Irish broadcaster RTE said May and Varadkar had a number of telephone calls on Thursday evening and that May also spoke to Juncker.
But May must ensure she has the support of the DUP, whose leader told her bluntly on Monday that it would not support her minority government's legislation unless the Irish border draft deal was changed, and her own lawmakers.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a leader of the Brexit campaign, insisted the whole of the United Kingdom must "take back control" when it left the EU.
"Whatever way we devise for getting onto the body of the (Brexit) talks, it's got to be consistent with the whole of the United Kingdom taking back control of our laws, of our borders and of our cash," Johnson told reporters.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Andrew Roche)