Pressure on Sunak to resolve Northern Ireland Protocol as optimism subsides

Rishi Sunak Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Reopened negotiations on a key Brexit agreement are still failing to resolve a number of issues, despite claims about significant progress on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Rishi Sunak's spokesman said “long-lasting challenges” under the protocol - a treaty which agreed how trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would work after Brexit - still need to be addressed.

There was an air of optimism last week that problems with Brexit's biggest sticking point were about to be ironed out after the PM met leaders in Northern Ireland, who said "significant progress" had been made.

But that appears to have subsided, with senior DUP MP Sammy Wilson telling ITV News he did not believe there would be a deal this week because one of his party's red lines were "not being dealt with".

Under the protocol, Northern Ireland is placed under EU law for trade reasons. The DUP says this must change before an agreement can be reached and it is refusing to enter a power-sharing government until it does.

Ministers attended a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday where Brexit negotiations with the EU were to be discussed but those greeted by waiting media on their departure would not speak about the protocol.

Mr Sunak's spokesman said the PM told Cabinet “intensive negotiations with the EU continue on resolving the issues with the way the protocol was being enforced”.

The spokesman said there was no discussion about the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and that Mr Sunak was not disappointed at being unable to present the meeting with a finished deal.

“Negotiations have progressed and that is to be welcomed, but there still remain a number of unresolved issues. And as is the nature of these negotiations it is often some of the more long lasting challenges that need to be addressed as you get to this point and that’s not unusual,” the spokesman said.

Following talks on Tuesday with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said discussions “continue at high intensity”.

“We remain in close touch, focused on finding joint solutions,” he said.

Mr Cleverly also tweeted, writing: "Work continues between teams, we remain laser-focused on finding a solution that works for the people of Northern Ireland."

Meanwhile, the European Research Group (ERG), a band of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, is piling pressure on Mr Sunak to make progress.

Prominent Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ERG member, said there was "no point in agreeing a deal" which the DUP is not satisfied with.

“I don’t know why so much political capital has been spent on something without getting the DUP and the ERG (European Research Group of Conservative MPs) on side first,” he said.

As pressure builds on the prime minister, who is also facing calls to allow MPs a vote on any final deal, the Times newspaper reported that some ministers could be prepared to resign if Mr Sunak’s solution to the protocol risks the place of Northern Ireland within the UK.

A No10 source told the PA news agency that central to Mr Sunak’s focus was safeguarding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

There are hopes a fresh settlement on post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland will be able to secure the return of power-sharing at the Stormont Assembly, after the DUP walked out in protest at the protocol last February.

On Monday, foreign secretary James Cleverly and the EU’s Maros Sefcovic agreed to hold a face-to-face meeting in the coming days after a “productive” video discussion.

Sources in Brussels welcomed the move to schedule in-person talks as a positive step, but said a location had not been set.

Focus has also turned to the fate of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is currently stalled in the Lords and would allow ministers to override parts of the protocol, after Boris Johnson called on ministers to press on with legislation enabling them to override parts of the protocol.

The intervention by the former prime minister, who negotiated the protocol but whose government also tabled the Bill at Westminster after unionist outcry at the deal, was a sign that some backbenchers may try to scupper any agreement brokered by Mr Sunak if it fails to address longstanding gripes about the settlement in Northern Ireland.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman on Monday described the Bill as “one of the biggest tools that we have in solving the problem on the Irish Sea”.

Ms Braverman, a longstanding Eurosceptic, argued that Mr Sunak is right to be “committed to finding a pragmatic solution to resolve these issues”.

Sir Keir Starmer has urged the prime minister to allow the Commons to have its say on any final deal, offering Labour support to secure the approval of any new agreement in the event of any Tory rebellion.

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It comes as former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis threw his weight behind calls to reform some of the post-Good Friday Agreement architecture in Northern Ireland, arguing that it was failing to reflect the changed electoral landscape in the region.

“The growth in the vote for the Alliance Party underlines the feeling that many more people now want to vote on issues, not on sectarian lines.

“That should be embraced as the greatest success of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. But if the Agreement does not evolve further, under current rules, if Alliance and its vote share continues to grow, it will never have the right to nominate the First or Deputy First Minister.

“Democracy cannot succeed when it is set in tram lines that can never cross,” Mr Lewis wrote in the Telegraph newspaper.