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Westminster Could Water Down Northern Ireland Brexit Checks In Bid To DUP

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson addresses DUP conference (Alamy)

4 min read

Government in Westminster is considering further reducing checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain as its negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over a return to power-sharing in Stormont ramp up.

Northern Ireland has been without functioning political institutions since early 2022. The region's second largest party, the DUP led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, is refusing to form a power-sharing government out of protest against post-Brexit arrangements for trade with Great Britain, which it argues undermine Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.

Donaldson and other DUP figures have been in talks with Downing Street and the Foreign Office for months about how the government can address their outstanding concerns about post-Brexit trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

After a summer of stalemate, in recent weeks the two sides have made significant progress, with a possible agreement believed to be imminent. "We are at the business end of things now," said one figure familiar with talks.

The DUP has told the Westminster government that the 'green lane' used by businesses in Great Britain to send goods to customers in Northern Ireland, created by Rishi Sunak's Windsor framework agreement with the European Union, currently entails too many controls, and that it wants to see them reduced before it will agree a return to power-sharing in Stormont.

UK officials are currently looking at further easements that could minimise the volume of checks taking place in the 'green lane', PoliticsHome understands.

The green lane was created by UK and EU negotiators to help goods get to Great Britain to Northern Ireland with minimal checks, while a more stringent red lane was set up for goods destined for the Republic of Ireland which must comply with Brussels rules.

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Sunak told Donaldson that his proposal to establish an "East-West Council" to "discuss and collaborate on the trading and many other opportunities presented by the Union" had "considerable merit" — in the latest sign that ministers DUP are nearing an agreement that could pave the way to Stormont's restoration.

Sunak also praised Donaldson for his speech to DUP conference last weekend, saying he made a "powerful case" for a "strong and functioning Northern Ireland within our Union".

The PM told Donaldson: "My right honourable friend the secretary of state [for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton Harris] has had the opportunity to discuss our shared commitment with the Union with his party over recent weeks and months, and I am grateful for the constructive approach and tone taken in those discussions."

In his speech to the DUP conference last week, Donaldson criticised people who argue that Northern Ireland is better off being ruled by Westminster than having a functioning devolved government.

"Time and again, Westminster has imposed laws upon us that are not in tune with the needs or wishes of the people of Northern Ireland," the DUP leader said.

"You cannot, on the one hand, repeatedly condemn successive governments for letting us down, and then argue with credibility that we are better off ruled directly by those who do not really understand what makes this place tick."

As has been the case for many months, Donaldson faces a major challenge in reaching a deal with the government to return to Stormont without upsetting more hardline members of the DUP including MPs Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr.

One figure who has worked closely with the MP for Lagan Valley said his conference speech was further evidence that he is keen to return to Stormont. “He’s not hostile to devolution," they told PoliticsHome. "That was his voice and where he wants to be.”

Earlier this year, Sunak successfully removed large parts of the red tape facing movements across the Irish Sea when he agreed the Windsor framework with the EU.

The DUP acknowledges that this treaty is an improvement on the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by former prime minister Boris Johnson, which it replaced. However, the party has spent many months warning that UK government must take further steps to guarantee Northern Ireland's place in the union before it agrees to return to power-sharing, which has been out of action since the DUP walked out of Stormont in February 2022.

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