Sunak: Northern Ireland in 'unbelievably special position' with access to EU and UK markets

The prime minister was in Northern Ireland today to promote his newly negotiated trade agreement with the EU, as ITV News' Carl Dinnen reports

By Lewis Denison, ITV News Westminster Producer

Rishi Sunak has said his new Brexit deal puts Northern Ireland in a "unbelievably special position" because it gives the nation access to both the UK and European Union markets - making it the "world’s most exciting economic zone."

The prime minister, in Northern Ireland to promote his newly negotiated trade agreement with the EU, told firms there they should “take advantage of Northern Ireland’s very special position.”

His tweaked Northern Ireland Protocol, labelled the Windsor Framework - which will dictate how trade moves between Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and the Republic - has eased checks on goods from the UK and maintained free flowing trade on the island of Ireland.

The agreement does mean Northern Ireland must continue following EU trade rules. But Mr Sunak has negotiated a 'Stormont Break', which allows lawmakers there to veto laws of significant impact.

The PM, speaking at a factory in Northern Ireland, said: “If we get this right, if we get this framework implemented, if we get the Executive back up and running here, 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.

“I can tell you, when I go around the world and talk to businesses, they know that – they’re like: ‘That’s interesting. If you guys get this sorted, then we want to invest in Northern Ireland, because nowhere else does that exist.’

“That’s like the world’s most exciting economic zone.”

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."

Another said: "Business across the whole of the UK used to have access to what this man now calls 'the world's most exciting economic zone'."

Mr Sunak's spokesman said the PM's remarks should not be viewed as him endorsing single-market benefits for the whole of the UK, reiterating that "the British people made a decision in 2016".

“With regards to Northern Ireland, it is simply a fact that because of our respect for the Good Friday Agreement and the central importance; Northern Ireland’s unique position means it needs to have access to both markets, not least to avoid a border on the island of Ireland, which nobody wants to see.

“That puts it in a unique position and what the framework does is finally cement those capabilities.”

Mr Sunak is hoping his new deal will win support from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which is essential if the Windsor Framework is to be approved by Tory MPs. The DUP's backing could also help restore power-sharing at Northern Ireland's assembly, Stormont.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed “significant progress” even as he warned that “there remain key issues of concern” regarding the deal.

In a statement, he said: "there can be no disguising the fact that in some sectors of our economy EU law remains applicable in Northern Ireland."

He added: "The DUP will want to study the detail of what has been published today as well as examining the detail of any and all underpinning legal texts.

"Where necessary we stand ready to engage with the government in order to seek further clarification, re-working or change as required."

The prime minister received a warm welcome when he met Tory backbenchers at the 1922 Committee on Tuesday night as he sought to see off any threat of rebellion from within his own ranks.

Speaking to reporters after the Prime Minister’s speech to the 1922 committee, Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker said: “I cannot see how we will get better than this … this is the deal.

“I’m really clear, there isn’t a different deal available, this is what’s been negotiated and it’s good.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol is and what will change?

“People are worried about the DUP but there’s an earnest sense of relief and support. I think we all believe he’s done it, but now we just wait with bated breath to see if the DUP agrees.”

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.

Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) met later on Tuesday and convened MP Sir Bill Cash’s so-called “star chamber” of lawyers to scrutinise the deal before deciding whether to back it.

The ERG has previously stated it will only back the deal if the DUP approves it.

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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 power-sharing in February last year, leaving Northern Ireland without an executive or an assembly.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly refused to speculate about what would happen if they DUP refuses to support the deal.

He said he was "confident" the concerned parties in Northern Ireland would see when they scrutinise the agreement that it has addressed their concerns.

He repeatedly said "I'm not going to speculate" in response to numerous ITV News questions about DUP approval.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said it was "welcome" that an agreement had been reached and urged the DUP to reenter power-sharing, adding: “There is a real urgency to get the Northern Executive up and running.”

“All different parties need to sit down at the executive table taking the decisions which impact on people’s lives, that is where we should be," she said.

“There shouldn’t be delays in that. We have a health service in crisis, public sector workers out on the picket line.

“Where we need to be is making politics work and standing up for the people that we represent collectively and I think that’s where our energies and efforts need to be now.”

Mr Sunak urged the two parties to "find a way to come back together" when speaking in Northern Ireland.

"We’ve put more power in the hands of Stormont, in those very people," he said. "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.”