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DUP Leader Says Deal To Restore Northern Ireland Power Sharing Shows "Real Change" But Battle Isn't Over

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson leaves Hillsborough Castle, Belfast (Alamy)

5 min read

Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted that his deal with the UK Government to restore power sharing can "sell itself" as the DUP remains on course to rejoin the region's political institutions in the coming days.

While several DUP MPs expressed concerns about the new deal in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, they are expected to ultimately rally behind Donaldson and allow him to take the unionist party back into Stormont — bringing the DUP's two-year, post-Brexit protest to an end.

Speaking at a press conference in Hillsborough Castle, Belfast on Wednesday, Donaldson admitted that the deal agreed with the UK Government was not perfect.

"I won't claim that every battle has been won or that every battle has been finished," said the MP for Lagan Valley in a joint press conference with Chris Heaton Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

However, the DUP leader argued that the agreement represented "real change" which surpasses what hardline unionist critics of his approach to talks with ministers in Westminster claimed he would achieve. 

"I know that on the basis of delivery of all the elements of this agreement, we are taking the right steps.

"It is almost two years since we withdrew the first minister as a consequence of the imposition of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which did not have the support from the elected representatives of unionists in Northern Ireland.

"This agreement represents the very significant progress on all the issues that we advanced in our negotiations."

Earlier in the day, several DUP MPs who are more opposed to the move to return to Stormont expressed dissatisfaction with the deal during a House of Commons debate.

Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, complained that it did not go far enough to detach Northern Ireland from European Union rules.

"Despite the gains that my party leader and deputy party leader have made in these negotiations, the fact remains that in Northern Ireland there are still EU-manned border posts being built which will create a border within our own country.

"When the Northern Ireland Assembly sits, ministers and members will be expected by law to adhere to and implement law which are made in Brussels and that they had no say over, no ability to amend, and no ability to stop," he said.

DUP MPs Carla Lockhart, Ian Paisley and Paul Givan also argued that there are major holes in the deal, the details of which were published by the UK Government in the form of legislation and a command paper on Wednesday.

However, these MPs are expected to "nod it [the deal] through" on Thursday when the House of Commons holds a short debate as they want to respect the decision by the wider party to support Donaldson's move to return to power sharing in the region.

Asked how he would "sell" the deal to unionist communities in Northern Ireland, Donaldson said "these proposals are more than capable of selling themselves".

He said: "Already this afternoon, within hours of these proposals being published, we are being inundated, flooded with messages of support from unionists right across Northern Ireland, who are saying, 'well done for what you have achieved. You stood your ground, you fought hard, and what you have achieved and delivered represents real change'."

Donaldson also sought to play down criticisms of the deal by DUP MPs.

"I think that, as with any party, people have concerns, and the good thing about my party is they can raise those concerns, and have done," he said at the press conference.

Following tomorrow's House of Commons debate, which will see statutory instruments brought forward by the government become law, the action will then move to Stormont where the political institutions could be up-and-running as soon as Saturday — exactly two years to the day (3 February, 2022) since the DUP collapsed power sharing over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland's relationship with Great Britain.

The DUP, the second biggest political party in Northern Ireland after Sinn Fein, collapsed power sharing two years ago out of protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. Negotiated by the former prime minister Boris Johnson as part of Brexit divorce talks, the DUP argued that the treaty had fundamentally undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK, and since then has been in discussions with the UK Government about changes to them.

The deal published on Wednesday builds on an agreement between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the European Commission called the Windsor framework that was signed early last year.

The UK Government has agreed to significantly reduce the number of checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland by moving from a system of "routine" checks to a "risk-based" approach focused on preventing cross-border smuggling. UK ministers are also bringing forward legislation to reaffirm Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. 

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions earlier today, Sunak opened the session by hailing the "significant steps" taken by the DUP to return to power sharing after its two-year boycott.

"After two years without an Executive, there is now the prospect of power sharing back up-and-running, strengthening our union, giving people the local accountable government they need, and offering Northern Ireland a brighter future," the Prime Minister told MPs.

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