Rishi Sunak seeks to sell ‘breakthrough’ deal after Brexit agreement
The PM has championed his new Brexit deal between Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU, Carl Dinnen reports
Rishi Sunak is in Northern Ireland to promote his newly agreed Brexit deal with the EU, promising people there it marks a “turning point” for the region after years of tension.
The new deal, dubbed the Windsor Framework, removes barriers on trade across the Irish Sea and hands a “veto” to politicians in Stormont on EU law – a set of concessions from Brussels that went further than some expected.
But it still includes a role for the European Court of Justice, with the Democratic Unionist Party and Tory backbenchers now set to study closely the details of the complex set of arrangements in the coming days.
The prime minister, who is also expected to speak to backbench MPs on Tuesday, spoke at length in the Commons on the deal as he sought to see off any threat of rebellion from within his own ranks.
But the reception so far has been warm, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcoming “significant progress” even as he warned that “there remain key issues of concern” regarding the deal.
A 'decisive breakthrough' on Northern Ireland's future has been made after seven years of arguments, but some unionists are reserving judgement as they pore over the details
The view of the party will be crucial, if the deal is to help restore powersharing at Stormont.
MPs are expected to get a vote on the deal, but Downing Street has not so far said when or how such a vote might take place.
Mr Sunak did not answer directly when asked if the DUP would back his deal, which is essential if it is to be approved by Tories in the House of Commons.
The deal will only be regarded as a success if DUP withdraws its protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol and re-enters powersharing with Sinn Fein to form a Stormont government.
Mr Sunak said he is “confident” parties in Northern Ireland will recognise it “gets the balance right”.
“People need the time to engage with it, understand it, ask the questions,” the Prime Minister told reporters during a visit to a Coca-Cola plant in County Antrim.
“We’re going to give them that and answer the questions in the meantime, but I’m confident they will come to see this for what it is, which is I think a historic achievement that gets the balance right for Northern Ireland.”
A key part of the deal is an emergency “Stormont brake” on changes to EU goods rules that can be pulled by the Northern Ireland Assembly, with No 10 hopeful that it will ensure concerns over a “democratic deficit” are addressed.
The prime minister called it a “very powerful mechanism” for Stormont to use when it has concerns over EU law, as he heralded the overall deal as a “decisive breakthrough”.
Speaking to businesses and individuals in Northern Ireland, he lauded the veto as he urged parties in Northern Ireland to "find a way to come back together" in a powersharing government.
“The Stormont brake is an incredibly powerful new cross-community safeguard. What it means is that the people and institutions of Northern Ireland are in control of their destiny,” he said.
Rishi Sunak on whether the DUP will approve his deal
He added: "We’ve put more power in the hands of Stormont, in those very people."
"But they need to get back in, they need to get put back in so they can use those powers. We’ve provided the means now, and I hope that with time and space, they will see that that’s the right way forward.”
Leaders in the EU and beyond hailed the progress too, with Ms von der Leyen praising the “new chapter in our partnership” while French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the “important decision”.
US President Joe Biden said it was an “essential step” in protecting the Good Friday Agreement, while in Dublin Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the EU had moved “a lot” to facilitate a deal.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson, who until only recently had been urging Mr Sunak to see the benefits of the newly-jettisoned Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, remained silent on Monday.
A source close to the former prime minister said that he is continuing to study and reflect on the government’s proposals.
Mr Sunak told people in Northern Ireland his deal puts them in the "most exciting economic zone in the world" because it gives them access to both the UK and European Union markets.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol is and what will change?
He said: "Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position – unique position in the entire world, European continent – in having privileged access, not just to the UK home market, which is enormous… but also the European Union single market.
“Nobody else has that. No one. Only you guys: only here, and that is the prize."
People on Twitter were quick to point out that England, Scotland and Wales also had that access before the UK voted to leave the EU - after Mr Sunak campaigned for Brexit.
One user wrote: "We all had this privilege before you and your Brexiteers dragged us out if it. I am astounded at you actually saying this out loud."
But within the Conservative ranks there was enthusiastic backing for the prime minister, with many senior Tories praising the deal.
Northern Ireland minister and former Brexit rebel Steve Baker was one of the most ardent backers of the prime minister’s deal, comparing the level of “statecraft” involved in the negotiations to that leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.
Speaking on ITV1’s Peston, Mr Baker said: “I think it’s a really historic moment. I think this is capable of bringing this awful rollercoaster row to an end, if the DUP are satisfied with it. I think it’s an incredibly important moment.”
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Writing in the Telegraph, Chairman of the backbench 1922 Sir Graham Brady said: “The so-called ‘Windsor Framework’ won’t be perfect but it looks like a massive step forward.”
Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) are to meet on Tuesday and will convene MP Sir Bill Cash’s so-called “star chamber” of lawyers to scrutinise the deal before deciding whether to back it.
The protocol was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit but means Northern Ireland has continued to follow EU rules on goods to prevent checks being needed when crossing into the Republic.
Unionists’ anger over the trade barriers in the Irish Sea culminated in the DUP collapsing powersharing in February last year, leaving Northern Ireland without an executive or an assembly.