DUP and ERG Alliance Threatens Fresh Brexit Headache For Rishi Sunak
Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson gave a well-received address to the Conservative party's staunchly pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs on Tuesday night.
Any alliance between the ERG, Brexit's most uncompromising defenders in Westminster, and the DUP, which has repeatedly warned the UK government that any deal with the EU on the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol must satisfy its strict demands before it agrees to the restoration of the province's collapsed government at Stormont, could prove cumbersome for Rishi Sunak should he reach an agreement with Brussels.
Donaldson spoke at the ERG's monthly plenary for over an hour, taking questions from Conservative MPs about the impasse over the post-Brexit treaty, PoliticsHome understands.
A Tory MP who attended the meeting said the ERG and DUP positions on the protocol, and what the UK should be prepared to accept in its negotiations with Brussels, were "indistinguishable".
Donaldson's appearance at the ERG meeting will serve as a reminder to the Prime Minister of the political trouble he could potentially face in the event of reaching an agreement with the European Commission.
Despite having voted and campaigned for Leave at the 2016 referendum, Sunak has struggled to convince some of the avid Brexiteers in his party that he is truly one of them, and risks accusations of making too many concessions to Brussels in a bid to strike a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The DUP's support will prove pivotal to the success of any agreement on Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade that avoids a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, and therefore the EU, which is politically untenable.
There has recently been a renewed optimism that the UK and EU will be able to reach an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol prior to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April.
UK and EU negotiators are preparing for several weeks of intense negotiations, with a Whitehall source yesterday telling PoliticsHome there was hope that a deal can be done by mid-February.
Speaking yesterday alongside Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said US President Joe Biden's administration was "heartened" to see the UK and EU make "substantive progress toward a negotiated solution", in a further sign that a deal could be close.
Ministers hope that reaching a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has strained UK-EU relations since it came into effect at the start of last year, will persuade Donaldson's DUP to agree to the formation of a power-sharing government in Stormont, having blocked it for nearly a year.
The treaty was agreed as part of Brexit talks with then prime minister Boris Johnson as a way of avoiding a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. However, it did so by erecting barriers to trade in the Irish Sea, which the DUP says has undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK.
The biggest obstacle to the DUP's support for any deal reached in the coming weeks is likely to be the role of the ECJ, with Donaldson warning last week that his party would not support any agreement that did not restore Northern Ireland’s "constitutional" place in the UK.
Currently, EU law applies in Northern Ireland by virtue of the region's place in the single market, and disputes arising from the post-Brexit treaty are determined by the European judges. Those familiar with negotiations say it will be the trickiest issue to resolve.
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