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DUP And Hardline Brexiteers Plot Response To Rishi Sunak's Northern Ireland Protocol Deal

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Alamy)

3 min read

The staunchest critics of Rishi Sunak's Northern Ireland Protocol deal with the European Union will meet on Tuesday night as the Prime Minister continues in his bid to win their support.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), will address Brexit hardline Conservative MPs in the European Research Group this evening, as Donaldson's party and the ERG discuss their next steps in the Brexit saga.

Donaldson's appearance at the ERG meeting represents what could be a key moment as No 10 tries to convince the two groups to support the terms of the UK's agreement with the EU, which the government had hoped to announce to the House of Commons today. 

Hopes within government that a deal with Brussels could be announced early this week have been dashed by a backlash from the DUP and Brexiteers on the Conservative back benches.

Sources in the DUP, which is refusing to form a government in Belfast over its opposition to the current protocol, say they have been briefed by UK officials on an overview of the proposed agreement, but have not yet seen the full text. The party believes what the government has negotiated with the EU, particularly on the role of the European Court of Justice, falls short of its seven red lines.

The party is also frustrated by what it sees as a failure by Downing Street to engage with them on the substance of the negotiations until very late in the process. 

A senior Tory yesterday told PoliticsHome that the Prime Minister had mishandled his approach to the DUP. "There's rolling the pitch and then there's bouncing someone into something," they said. "There's a difference."

They argued that the Sunak regime had repeated the errors of former prime minister Theresa May, who was ultimately ousted over the issue of Brexit, by trying to deliver a deal with the EU without the support of the DUP, only to have the plans scuppered at the final hurdle. 

"They are making the same mistakes as Theresa," said the senior Tory.

Jacob Rees Mogg, the former Cabinet minister, echoed this on Tuesday, telling ConservativeHome that Sunak's approach had been "very similar" to May's.

Conservative MPs in the ERG are currently unconvinced by the details of the deal on the table, despite the government's assurances, and say they will not green light any deal unless it is supported by the DUP.

There is concern that Conservative MP Steve Baker, who used to lead the ERG as a back bencher, could resign from his role as Northern Ireland minister over the terms of the agreement. 

PoliticsHome reported yesterday that government insiders believed Thursday was the most likely day for an announcement that a deal has been done, but the timeline faces being pushed into next week as no10 struggles to convince sceptics to get on board.

The government does not regard Friday is as an option as it falls on the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which will be observed by both the UK and Brussels.

Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice President, said "high intensity" talks would continue following a video call with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris this afternoon.

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