Brexit: Deal done on Northern Ireland Protocol - now what?

A deal has been done with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol - but the hard work is far from over for Rishi Sunak. Credit: PA

By Lewis Denison, ITV News Westminster Producer

Rishi Sunak has achieved the first big win of his premiership; he's negotiated with the EU a settlement on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The key Brexit agreement, which dictates how the UK and EU trade with Northern Ireland, will be adjusted to remove customs arrangements on most goods flowing there from Great Britain.

It's a success the prime minister will hope puts him high in the regards of the same people who elected Boris Johnson to 'get Brexit done' - but there's still much to do and Mr Sunak has a lot on the line.

What is in the new deal?

The new Windsor Framework - as the tweaked settlement has been labelled - “removes any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”, the PM said.

He set out a wide array of planned changes and reforms, covering trade, VAT regulation and the role of Stormont in EU laws that apply to Northern Ireland.

At the core of the deal is the creation of a new system for the flow of goods.

Anything destined for Northern Ireland will travel there as part of a “green lane”, with significantly fewer checks. Anything that could cross the border and enter the EU’s single market will travel through a separate red lane.

Mr Sunak said that the changes to the protocol will scale back the number of certificates required for traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, with customs paperwork removed too for people sending parcels or buying goods online.

He indicated changes to the movement of food too, claiming that anything made to UK rules will now be clear to be “sent to and sold” in NI. That will include sausages, one of the foodstuffs hit by protocol changes and which grabbed the attention of politicians in Belfast and Westminster alike.

“If food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, then it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland,” Mr Sunak said.

As part of the deal, the legal text of the protocol has also been amended on VAT. Under current arrangements, EU VAT and excise rules for goods generally apply in Northern Ireland.

Mr Sunak said that would now change, with the legal text of the protocol amended to allow the UK Government to “make critical VAT and excise changes for the whole of the UK”.

Alcohol duty, for instance, was mentioned – with Mr Sunak suggesting that the cost of a pint in the pub could be cut for Northern Irish drinkers.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why was it causing problems?

The agreement dealt with trade across the Irish land border, the UK's only physical contact with the EU by allowing goods to flow freely on the island of Ireland but placing customs checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales.

That introduced red tape on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, creating a headache for many businesses and enraging unionist parties including the DUP.

The big tests of the PM's deal are whether it will satisfy the Democratic Unionist Party, backbench Tory organisation the European Research Group (ERG), and get the approval of Parliament.

The Northern Irish hurdle

The DUP says the protocol impacts its sovereignty as it has to follow EU trade rules and makes Northern Ireland a lesser part of the UK because of customs checks.

It has created a political deadlock in Northern Ireland because the DUP is refusing to form a government until changes are made.

Political turmoil over the years in Northern Ireland was resolved and violence stopped by an agreement which only allows a government to form with the agreement of republicans Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Mr Sunak had been keen to resolve issues over the protocol so the two parties could start power sharing and cooperating to tackle issues such as the rising cost of living.

The DUP has said it will only go back into devolved government if significant changes are delivered on the protocol.

The big red line the party is the oversight role of the European Court of Justice, which under the protocol is the ultimate arbiter of trade disputes relating to Northern Ireland.

If the deal does not satisfy the DUP on this point, there will be no restoration of a Northern Irish government will have effectively failed.

The Parliament hurdle

Downing Street has not fully committed to giving Parliament a vote on the agreement, as demanded by the ERG, which is a group comprised of dozens of Eurosceptic Tory MPs and ministers.

He'll set himself on a collision course with his own backbenchers if he refuses to seek their approval on the deal, a move which could come back to haunt him.

If he does put the deal to a vote, it's possible he could lose - despite his huge Commons majority - because the ERG has said it will only give its approval if the DUP does too.

The PM would only win in Parliament if the ERG rejects his deal because Labour has agreed to support it. But he would want to win without relying on Opposition votes.

Sir Keir Starmer reiterated his party’s support for any deal struck but said the real test now is whether Mr Sunak “has got the strength to sell it to his backbenchers or not”.

So with everything still to play for, all eyes are on the DUP...

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