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MP Briefings On Northern Ireland Protocol Agreement Being Finalised As Deal Nears

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving 10 Downing Street for PMQs (Alamy)

3 min read

The government is putting the final touches on briefings for key stakeholders detailing an imminent deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol as UK and European Union negotiators close in on an agreement.

Officials are close to completing a command paper explaining the agreement that will be made available to MPs and Lords in parliament, PoliticsHome understands.

The government is also putting together a briefing setting out how it believes the pact meets the seven tests of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, whose approval will be key to restoring devolved institutions, as well as a longer, explanatory document containing questions and answers about the agreement, which will be given to government ministers.

No 10 insists negotiations between the two sides are continuing and that no deal has been done.

However, the two sides have made significant progress in recent weeks, and as per other publications an announcement that an agreement has been reached could come as soon as next week. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to discuss the protocol issue with European counterparts at a security conference in Munich this weekend. It is also possible that the Prime Minister speaks to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen before heading to Germany.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of Brexit negotiations as a way of avoiding a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. It did so by creating new barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea, which both sides are committed to reducing.

The atmosphere in the negotiations has improved markedly since Sunak entered No 10 after several fractious periods during the tenures of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. This has led to negotiators making major breakthroughs on the thorny issues of customs checks and the role of the European Court of Justice after many months of impasse.

PoliticsHome reported last week that No 10 had paused the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill's journey through the House of Lords to avoid undermining its talks with the European Commission at a key moment.

The contentious legislation, first introduced by ex-prime minister Johnson, would give ministers the power to unilaterally overhaul the post-Brexit treaty with the EU, and is expected to face dozens of amendments from peers if it gets that far in the parliamentary process.

The next hurdle facing Sunak is persuading the DUP to support a deal with the EU.

The party led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson collapsed the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland early last year over its opposition to the post-Brexit arrangements and is refusing to re-enter the institutions in Stormont until their concerns are addressed. 

Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim, today warned that the question of whether a deal meets his party's seven tests would be answered by the DUP, not the UK government. 

"The DUP have not seen any details regarding the deal but we will be the final arbiters as to whether or not it meets our seven tests," said Wilson.

"The fundamental issue to be dealt with is the democratic deficit and the constitutional damage done by the imposition of EU law. If that is not dealt with then the deal is worthless."

The Prime Minister also faces a possible backlash from the European Research Group of staunchly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs, who are in close dialogue with the ERG.

David Jones, the ERG's deputy leader, warned on Tuesday that making "cosmetic changes" to the Northern Ireland Protocol would not suffice.

"The Northern Ireland Protocol question won’t be resolved unless the automatic application of EU law and the jurisdiction of the ECJ in NI both come to an end. Cosmetic changes just won’t work. The issue is sovereignty and that, frankly, can’t be the subject of compromise," he tweeted.

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