New UK-EU Northern Ireland deal may not be the slam dunk the prime minister hopes | Beth Rigby | Political News

After two years of deadlock and plenty of bad blood between London and Brussels and the Conservative government and the DUP, Rishi Sunak tried to grasp the nettle and break the deadlock.

This impasse has muddled UK-EU relations and made it difficult to reach a power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland.

It is the boldest move of his premiership and fraught with danger.

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Pull it off and he’s a beleaguered prime minister very animated.

Fail, and Mr Sunak could see his premiership sink under the weight of Brexiteer uprisings, a resurgent Boris Johnson and ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland.

Where it was clear Mr Sunak had won on Monday was with Brussels.

The bonhomie between the prime minister and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was clear.

The prime minister hailed this as a “new chapter” in EU-UK relations while Kauf von der Leyen – perhaps referring to her old rival Boris Johnson – claimed they had come out of those negotiations with a “stronger EU-UK relationship” and praised Mr Sunak’s “very constructive attitude from the start to solving problems”.

A new start, with a new approach, has resulted in real gains with the EU moving in a way that many thought was not possible.

Mr Sunak won concessions that many Brexit watchers believed were not possible months ago when Mr Johnson tabled the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to unilaterally replace post-Brexit trade deals between Northern Ireland and of Great Britain (a bill now defeated).

The new agreement has a ‘green lane’ without checks for goods crossing the Irish Sea destined to remain in Northern Ireland, while a ‘red lane’ will be used for goods that continue to enter Ireland and the EU single market.

Photo: AP
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hold a press conference in Windsor. Photo: AP

The prime minister also said the deal would end the situation where food made under UK rules cannot be shipped and sold in Northern Ireland.

Under the new deal, Northern Ireland will have the same goods, drinks and medicines as the rest of the UK: “We have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea.”

It also rewrites part of the existing protocol to allow Westminster to set VAT rates in Northern Ireland.

The deal also sought to tackle the “democratic deficit” that has so angered unionists that they will be treated no differently from the rest of the UK and which resulted in the suspension of the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland.

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What is the new deal for Northern Ireland?

Read more:
Prime Minister unveils ‘Windsor Framework’ deal for Brexit
Five main sections of the text

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
What are the DUP’s seven tests?

On Monday, the Prime Minister unveiled the “Stormont brake” which seeks to address the issue of Northern Ireland’s inclusion in EU goods laws.

Under a new arrangement, the Stormont assembly will be able to oppose the new rules if a total of 30 members from at least two parties decide to apply the brakes.

Mr Sunak said it was a “strong new safeguard based on cross-community consensus”.

The question is whether the cross-community vote, which requires a majority of unionists and Irish nationalists, rather than a simple majority, will be enough to satisfy the DUP.

And while the prime minister told MPs the deal removed 1,700 pages of EU law and “puts beyond any doubt that we have now regained control”, officials also admitted the Windsor framework does not remove EU law or the jurisdiction of the European court from Northern Ireland.

And the key question in all of this is, will the prime minister’s bet to catch the nettle pay off? He has clearly won Brussels and Ka von der Leyen, but now he has much rougher characters to bring on board – and the result is still not certain.

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‘Some issues of concern’ in new NI deal

The DUP are predictably playing their cards close to their chest, as we expected them to do.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that while “significant progress” had been made, “there is no denying the fact that in some areas of our economy EU law still applies” and said the DUP would now consider the details of agreement.

Unionists are also awaiting legal advice and the verdict of the “star chamber” of lawyers from the European Research Group who will examine this deal as they did with Theresa May and Boris Johnson to see if this deal restores British sovereignty.

Much depends on what the trade unionists decide.

As one senior Brexiteer put it to me this week, it would be “bad” for a Tory MP not to support a deal if the DUP is satisfied.

Mr Sunak has certainly won over some of the Brexiteers today.

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Baker hails ‘significant win’

A senior official told me: “It looks very good and is better than I expected”, while Northern Ireland Secretary and Brexit campaigner Chris Heaton-Harris and Northern Ireland Secretary Steve Baker urged colleagues to support the deal.

“I would stand down if I felt I couldn’t support the deal. So, you know, I support it with a good heart,” Mr Baker told Sky News on Monday night.

But there are also rumblings that this might not be the slam dunk Mr. Sunak is hoping for.

When I asked a leading Brexiteer how important it was that fellow travelers Mr Heaton-Harris and Baker were satisfied, they replied that the pair “are just salesmen” and it was the ERG’s job to look into that text.

“A quick read makes it clear that the EU and the ECJ apply to this deal,” the senior Tory said, adding that the threshold for locking up Stormont was too high.

“This is like a budget. It sounds good on day one until the detail starts to unravel,” they said.

As for Mr Johnson, he is also taking his time to see how this deal will be absorbed. Sources close to him state that the former prime minister “continues to study and reflect on the government’s proposals”.

The No 10 is delighted with how the day went, with one senior executive telling me it “couldn’t have gone any better”.

This is a watershed moment that could prove not only a breakthrough in restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland, but also in restoring relations with the EU and Mr Sunak’s premiership.

So far, he has been an underwhelming prime minister who has failed to impress his party or the public. Pull it and he can get that honeymoon that eluded him when he handed over the crown last fall.

What is clear is that Mr Sunak needs something significant to take him from caretaker prime minister occupying No 10 to a credible one who has at least a chance of turning the Tories’ fortunes around before the 2024 election.

He and his team know that finally threading the Brexit needle where those before him failed would be a very good start.

The question is, will his enemies leave him?

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