3rd Dec 2023

Sunak lobbies Northern Ireland with EU trade deal

  • UK prime minister Rishi Sunak was in Northern Ireland to lobby for the backing of his deal with the EU (Photo: Flickr - Downing street 10)
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British prime minister Rishi Sunak was in Northern Ireland on Tuesday (28 February) to rally support for his EU deal on post-Brexit trade arrangements, arguing the so-called 'Windsor Framework' restores "balance" to Northern Ireland's politics.

The EU and the UK announced on Monday the new agreement, which took three years to reach following the divorce deal that marked the UK's withdrawal from the bloc.

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The deal still needs to be formally approved by both sides, but it has the potential to revitalise relationship between the EU and the UK that went sour over during the divorce.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, and the region's power-sharing government between its Catholic and Protestant communities, has been suspended since February 2022 after the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out of the power-sharing agreement.

Sunak said that he was "confident" that the Stormont (where the 90-strong assembly sits) parties will "recognise that this a good deal and that will enable them to get back into a power-sharing executive".

"The Windsor Framework restores that balance," Sunak added.

The DUP objected to the original protocol, which created a de facto trade border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to protect the EU's single market and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Sunak said the fact that Northern Ireland was able to have access to the EU and the UK's market was unique and created "an unbelievably special position".

Sunak's key to having enough political backing for the deal in the UK is the DUP.

Its leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, said on Tuesday that the deal seems to give the Stormont assembly the power to reject EU rules it did not want, but that his party is likely to take time before it comes to a conclusion.

Members of the European Research Group, the hardcore Brexit caucus within the UK Conservative party, are expected to work with lawyers to examine the details before giving their verdict.

Suggesting he might go ahead with the DUP's backing, Sunak said the deal was not about "any one political party".

"This is about what's best for the people and communities and businesses of Northern Ireland and this agreement will make a hugely positive difference to them," he said.

News of the deal in the UK was generally met with optimism. Among the staunchest Brexit supporters, only Nigel Farage criticised it vehemently, while former PM Boris Johnson, who could try to sink Sunak's efforts, has so far remained silent.

Several prominent pro-Brexit Conservatives, such as former Brexit secretary David Davis, in fact backed the deal, saying the framework is a "spectacular negotiating success".

Sunak could not only restart relations with the EU if he manages to secure the political backing he needs for the deal, but he would score points in Washington too.

US president Joe Biden could visit Northern Ireland for the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian fighting, if the deal backed in the region as well.

What brake?

A key part of the new Windsor Framework is the so-called 'Stormont Brake', which aims to give local communities in Northern Ireland a say, if EU rules which apply to them, change.

The London government advertises this brake as essentially a UK veto, while EU officials argue it is a measure to be used as a last resort. EU officials on Monday said it also only applies to rules that the EU might want to amend in the future.

The brake would allow the UK government, at the request of 30 members of the assembly in Northern Ireland, to "stop the application of amended or replacing legal provisions that may have a significant and lasting impact specific to the everyday lives of communities in Northern Ireland", the commission said in a statement.

The process' details are left to the UK, which says the brake will apply to changes to EU customs, goods, and agriculture rules.

The process is based on the Good Friday Agreement, according to the UK, allowing a concern to be raised based on 30 lawmakers in Northern Ireland from "two or more parties" signing a petition. However, the petitions doesn't need to have the backing of both communities, at least not explicitly.

Once this brake is triggered, the UK government will try to solve the issue among the parties in Northern Ireland, and if it fails, it will go to the joint EU-UK committee.

How Northern Irish parties, and Conservative MPs, will evaluate this element, and whether this constitutes taking back democratic control in their assessment, could be crucial to the deal's fate.

A vote in the House of Commons is not expected until next week.


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