The Prime Minister says he’s hopeful of a positive outcome, but insists a pact is not yet secured
Rishi Sunak said his administration is “giving it everything we’ve got” to finalise a deal to fix issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol but insists a pact has not yet been secured.
The Prime Minister said he is hopeful of a “positive outcome” in the talks with the European Union as Westminster braces for a new-look protocol to be unveiled.
The British leader 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, speaking to The Sunday Times newspaper, pledged that “anything that we do will tick all of those boxes” in terms of Unionist concerns.
A protocol deal has looked close to being announced for almost a week.
And after No 10 said “good progress” was made during a Friday call between the Prime Minister and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a breakthrough seemed imminent.
However, a plan for Ms von der Leyen to travel to Britain on Saturday to meet Mr Sunak and then have afternoon tea with the King at Windsor Castle was scrapped on Friday evening.
Downing Street has since said that “intensive” discussions remain underway between London and Brussels.
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.
The Prime Minister told The Sunday Times that he was continuing to push for a final agreement with the bloc.
“I’m here all weekend trying to get it done,” he told the newspaper.
“We’re giving it everything we’ve got.”
He 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.
Citing 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 – Mr Sunak pledged to work to satisfy Unionist demands with any deal he secures.
“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,” he told The Sunday Times.
Multiple reports have suggested a deal between the UK and the EU is all but done – with Mr Sunak delaying an announcement until he is confident it will be accepted.
No 10 denies that but reports suggest Mr Sunak 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, with the former prime minister recently imploring Mr Sunak not to drop his Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would unilaterally overwrite parts of the treaty.
The Sunday Times reported that Mr Johnson, called to back what Mr Sunak comes back with in order to appease the White House, replied saying: “F*** the Americans.”
A source close to Mr Johnson told PA: “This was a jocular conversation in the chamber that someone evidently misunderstood.
“That is not the sort of language he would use.”
Fresh speculation about a new pact comes after Downing Street came in for criticism for the proposed meeting between EU leader Ms von der Leyen and the King.
It is said that No 10 envisaged branding Mr Sunak’s deal the “Windsor Agreement” if the German politician had been content to sign off on a deal while in Britain.
Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, accused the Prime Minister of “dragging the King into a hugely controversial political issue”.
A UK Government source said it would not have been improper for the King to have met a visiting European leader.
The source told PA news agency it was “wrong to suggest the King would be involved in anything remotely political”.
Buckingham Palace would not comment.
Published: 25/02/2023 by Radio NewsHub