Donaldson warns Sunak of NI Protocol roadblock despite positive talks

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, speaks to the media in Lisburn.
Sir Jeffrey and the DUP are currently refusing to enter into Northern Ireland's power sharing agreement. Credit: PA

When the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, emerged onto a parliamentary corridor after addressing Brexiteer Conservative backbenchers, he had warm words for the prime minister.

He said Rishi Sunak should be commended for the progress that had been made over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and for travelling to Belfast to discuss the situation with his unionist party.

In particular, he will be pleased about progress on minimising the border - which the Protocol effectively places down the Irish sea - with a new red and green lane system, that will end checks on goods destined for Northern Ireland itself.

But Donaldson also made clear that there is still another hurdle to clear if his party is to enter power sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly (the importance of which I'll come back to) and that is about European Union (EU) laws.

He told journalists that it was unacceptable to him for all goods from Northern Ireland (and in particular, those staying within the UK) to have to follow European rules and standards in the future.

And that is a potentially huge problem for the PM because when you talk to those on the EU side they stress that what is happening right now (in their opinion) is not a "renegotiation" of the Protocol but a "reinterpretation" of what is already in it.

They say there was already an agreement around different rules for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and so the red/green system is simply reinterpreting the text.

However, when I asked a source close to the talks about Donaldson's demand, they said that would require rewriting the Protocol. And on that, they said: "There is no chance of that happening under this deal."

And so, Mr Sunak is plunged into a 'catch-22'.

Sources say the PM wants three outcomes from this negotiation: to secure Northern Ireland's place within the UK; to protect the Good Friday Agreement; and to stop all the problems being faced by Northern Ireland businesses as a result of the Protocol.

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Now, clearly he could hold off and anger the EU by pushing ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in Parliament (allowing Britain to override the Protocol). That would be seen as a breach of international law by those across the Channel and sour the mood when it comes to talks. Consequently, this could mean it would be very difficult to improve the experiences of businesses as he's determined to do in point three.

There are also some making the argument internally that dual regulation could be damaging for Northern Ireland in other ways.

But if he defies his backbenchers and pushes ahead, the DUP may continue to refuse to resume power sharing.

That would mean the people of Northern Ireland would continue to not have a fully functioning government, which can adequately respond to need at times of a cost-of-living crisis and rolling strikes.

It would arguably not satisfy at least one of the other priorities.