UK and EU 'inching towards' new post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland

A deal could be days away, but it won't come without resistance from within Northern Ireland and the from Tory backbenches - as Pablo Taylor reports

Rishi Sunak has said he and his government are "giving it everything we've got" as they try to get a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol over the line.

No 10 said "good progress" was made during a call between the prime minister and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, with a breakthrough seeming very close.

After “positive” discussions, Ms von der Leyen was expected to arrive in Britain on Saturday for more talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

But UK government sources confirmed she was no longer scheduled to make the journey to Britain over what it said were operational reasons.

ITV News understands she was scheduled to meet the King at Windsor Castle on Saturday for afternoon tea before the trip was cancelled.

It is understood the meeting could have been interpreted as Charles “endorsing the deal” that the prime minister is attempting to negotiate with the European Union to solve Brexit-related issues.

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Baroness Hoey, a Northern Irish Brexit supporter and former Labour MP, tweeted: “If true, I cannot believe that even the advisers around Rishi Sunak, who clearly don’t understand Northern Ireland, could have even contemplated this.

“Would be outrageous and I believe King Charles would not have agreed to it.”

There were talks about calling a potential protocol pact the “Windsor Agreement” after a meeting with Charles, ITV News understands.

Former business secretary and senior member of the Tory Eurosceptic European Research Group said: “If there were a plan to bring the King in before there is domestic political agreement, it would border on constitutional impropriety.”

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UK government sources said that, while Ms von der Leyen’s trip was no longer going ahead, it would not have been improper for the King, as head of state, to have met a visiting European leader.

“It would be wrong to suggest the King would be involved in anything remotely political,” a government source said.

Buckingham Palace said it would not comment.

No 10 said further talks between Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen would occur within the coming days, without being more exact on timings.

The prime minister is keen to ensure the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is on side with his final agreement as he looks to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.

The DUP is refusing to take part in Stormont’s cross-community devolved government alongside Sinn Fein in protest at the impact the Brexit treaty is having on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The party has issued seven tests that Mr Sunak’s pact will have to meet in order to win its backing, including addressing what it calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.

Mr Sunak told The Sunday Times that he would do “anything that we do will tick all of those boxes” in terms of Unionist concerns.

He added: “I’m here all weekend trying to get it done... We’re giving it everything we’ve got.”

Mr Sunak admitted that there were examples of “where it feels that Northern Ireland is not part of the Union” and that the protocol had “unbalanced” the Good Friday Agreement that helped end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

He gave the example of not being able to apply reforms to alcohol duty in Northern Ireland when he was chancellor – as the protocol dictates that it falls under EU single market rules for duties.

“I’m a Conservative, I’m a Brexiteer and I’m a unionist and anything that we do will tick all of those boxes, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to me, let alone anyone else,” the PM added.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar said on Saturday that talks between the UK and the European Union were “inching towards conclusion” as he called on all sides to “go the extra mile” to sign off on negotiations.

No 10 has denied reports that the deal between the UK and the EU is all but done, and that Mr Sunak is delaying an announcement until he is confident it will be accepted.

But it has suggested the PM has secured concessions that will ease the flow of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain — a major bugbear for Unionists.

Trusted traders from GB into Northern Ireland will reportedly not need to undergo checks as part of the plans, while VAT rates, taxes and state aid policy will all be set by Westminster rather than Brussels as part of the offer on the table.

The Prime Minister has also reportedly negotiated a means by which the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast will be given pre-legislative scrutiny over new EU laws in a bid to remove the so-called “democratic deficit”.

Downing Street will be anxiously waiting for Boris Johnson’s view on the new terms.

The former prime minister recently implored Mr Sunak not to drop his Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would unilaterally overwrite parts of the treaty.

The King was said to be due to meet the European Commission president at Windsor before it was called off Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

With Cabinet ministers reportedly on alert for a possible conference call over the weekend and Tory MPs being ordered into Parliament on a three-line whip on Monday, Westminster has been braced for a No 10 protocol announcement.

The protocol, signed by former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2020, was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Friday Credit: Steve Reigate/Daily Express/PA

But the treaty has incensed unionists due to the trade barriers it has created between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Any announcement of a deal is expected to set up a possible clash with Conservative Brexit hardliners.

Mr Sunak has promised the House of Commons will be able to “express its view” on his fresh protocol terms, which he hopes will get the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.

The DUP has issued seven tests to win its backing for any deal, including addressing what it calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.

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