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Northern Ireland Protocol Deal Delayed As No 10 Scrambles For DUP Support

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking in Munich (Alamy)

3 min read

Rishi Sunak's ongoing bid to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to support his Northern Ireland Protocol deal with the European Union, which was expected to be announced early this week, is set to delay the planned timetable for an announcement.

Government officials are continuing to brief the DUP on the details of the proposed pact, with the hope that they can soon announce that an agreement has been reached, PoliticsHome understands.

While optimism that a deal can be done this week remains, a provisional plan put together by whips last week for Sunak to announce that a deal had been done to the House of Commons on Tuesday is now viewed as close to dead.

Thursday is now seen as the most likely day for an announcement, if it does happen this week, according to a Whitehall source. Friday is not regarded as a feasible option as it falls on the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

No 10 faces accusations of mishandling its bid to get the DUP on board with terms agreed by UK and EU negotiators in recent weeks.

The Prime Minister discussed the protocol negotiations with Donaldson and other DUP politicians in Belfast late last week, and government insiders were cautiously optimistic about the tone struck by the party leader following their meeting on Friday morning.

However, the DUP issued warnings over the weekend that what the UK and EU have agreed does not go far enough, particularly on the role of the European Court of Justice, which has derailed plans for Sunak to announce the deal early this week.

A senior Conservative MP told PoliticsHome on Monday that they believed No 10 had failed to properly engage with the DUP on the substance of the negotiations, causing remaining issues to stall the deal.

"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 get an agreement with Brussels over the line in Westminster without the support of the staunch unionist party, only to have the plans scuppered at the final hurdle. 

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

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris spoke to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic this afternoon as the wait for an announcement goes on.

The political dialogue is set to continue, with Cleverly expected to travel to Brussels later this week.

Following his virtual meeting with Sefcovic, he tweeted: "Intensive work continues and we agreed to talk again in the coming days."

The foreign secretary will address Tory MPs at a meeting of the 1922 committee on Wednesday evening. A source close to Cleverly said that the appearance had been long planned and played down any link to the latest developments in the Northern Ireland Protocol saga, however.

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