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Rishi Sunak Is In Touching Distance Of A Northern Ireland Protocol Deal, But Now He's Got To Sell It To Its Toughest Critics

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (Alamy)

5 min read

Ahead of a pivotal week for the Northern Ireland Protocol, Rishi Sunak will today meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a final bid to resolve a key remaining Brexit impasse.

The Prime Minister and European Union chief will meet on the sidelines at a security conference in Munich, while in London the government is preparing to announce that an agreement with Brussels has finally been reached, and could be announced within days. 

The protocol was agreed as part of Brexit negotiations as a way of avoiding a controversial 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.

After failed talks dogged the fractious premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Sunak in his five months in Downing Street has taken the UK to the cusp of an agreement with the EU. This, sources on both sides say, is partly down to helping improve the atmosphere between the two sides markedly.

Conservative party whips are now believed to be finalising plans for Sunak to announce his Northern Ireland Protocol deal to Parliament in the first half of next week.

While the government is publicly playing down the prospect of a deal being announced imminently, insisting that negotiations with the European Commission over the contentious post-Brexit treaty for Northern Ireland are ongoing, there is growing confidence that months of deadlock are about to conclude. On Wednesday PoliticsHome reported that officials were close to completing briefings on the substance of the deal, including a government command paper explaining the agreement that will be put before parliament for MPs and peers to read.

One plan being considered is for the Prime Minister to present the details of the agreement with Brussels to Cabinet on Tuesday morning, before putting the deal to MPs in the Commons later in the day, a Whitehall source told PoliticsHome. A statement by Sunak as soon as Monday is also being considered, underlining the urgency with which the government is treating the matter.

But the situation is fluid and fast-changing, in a reflection of both how close Sunak is to striking a deal with the EU, and just how sensitive a political issue it is for the Prime Minister and his government. Crucially, Sunak still needs to get it past Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose approval will be key to restoring Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.

While meetings between Sunak and leaders of Northern Ireland's political parties in Belfast on Friday appeared to run smoothly, the Prime Minister expressed his agreement with those present that "further work is required".

It is believed that Sunak could use his meeting with von der Leyen this weekend to set out what final details must be added to the deal to secure DUP support. Persuading the DUP to back his deal is the huge challenge awaiting Sunak once it is announced.

Sunak's proposed deal has been shrouded in secrecy since it emerged that Downing Street had concluded talks with Brussels in recent weeks. It has long been thought that the trickiest issue to overcome will be the role of the European Court of Justice. The ECJ is set to retain some sort of role as part of the deal, but in its proposed "seven tests" that the DUP has said the deal must pass to gain their approval, Northern Ireland can no longer be subject to EU laws.

Following Friday's meeting DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his talks with Sunak had reached a "big moment" and warned the Prime Minister that he must only agree to "the right deal".

But while he felt significant progress has been made in addressing his party's concerns, in other areas the agreement on the table "falls short of what would be acceptable".

Despite the stark warning from such a critical player in the process, UK government figures were cautiously optimistic about the tone struck by Donaldson.

Earlier in the week, DUP peer Lord Nigel Dodds deployed a much harder line, telling La Repubblica that "if anything, the mood is hardening" in the party.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP leader
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP leader

Donaldson revealed on Friday that he had spent the previous 48 hours in talks with UK officials about negotiations.

Sunak met with Donaldson and other DUP figures on Thursday night, prior to their official meeting at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast the next morning. The meeting on Friday far overran the fifteen minutes that had been pencilled in and that Sunak spent in talks with Northern Ireland's other political parties, in a potential sign that he has his work cut out trying to get the DUP on board.

There had been confusion and irritation among DUP politicians that the UK government had not engaged with them on the substance of the agreement being thrashed out with the EU in the run-up to Sunak flying to Belfast on Thursday night.

The Prime Minister also risks provoking the wrath of staunch Brexiteers in the European Research Group of Conservative MPs, who also say they have not been consulted on the progress of the talks.

David Jones, the group's deputy leader, warned on Thursday that only fundamental reform of the protocol would suffice, tweeting that Northern Ireland could no longer be subject to ECJ law. According to the Telegraph, Tory MPs who opposed both Boris Johnson and Theresa May's approaches to Northern Ireland are already accusing Sunak, who voted and campaigned for Leave, of a "Brexit betrayal".

However, with Keir Starmer's Labour committed to supporting the deal, and with the agreement currently not expected to be put to a parliamentary vote, there is a feeling that the Prime Minister can afford to pick a fight with this section of the Conservative party back benches, and may just get the deal over the line after all. 

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