New UK-EU deal on Northern Ireland may not be the hit prime minister is hoping for | Beth Rigby | Political news

After two years of deadlock and many bad relations between London and Brussels, the Conservative government and the DUP, Rishi Sunak tried to grab the hook and break the deadlock.

This stalemate has soured relations between the UK and the European Union and has hampered a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.

This is the boldest move of his Prime Minister and fraught with danger.

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“Critical Moment for Rishi Sunak”

Follow live updates on the new post-Brexit deal

Take it off, and behold, the beleaguered prime minister is very emboldened.

A failure, and Mr Sunak could see his Prime Minister sink under the weight of Brexiteer revolts, a resurgent Boris Johnson and continuing tensions in Northern Ireland.

Where it was clear Sunak won on Monday was against Brussels.

The cordiality between the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was visible to the naked eye.

The prime minister hailed this as a “new chapter” in EU-UK relations while Mrs von der Leyen – perhaps referring to her old adversary Boris Johnson – claimed they came out of these negotiations with “stronger EU-UK relations” and praised Sunak’s “very constructive attitude from the start in solving problems” .

A new head, with a new approach, delivered real benefits as the EU moved in a way many thought was impossible.

Mr Sunak obtained concessions that many Brexit observers thought impossible a few months ago when Mr Johnson conceived the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to unilaterally replace the post-Brexit trade arrangements between Northern Ireland and the UK (the bill has been withdrawn).

The new deal has a “green belt” with no checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea to remain in Northern Ireland, while a “red belt” would be used for goods continuing to Ireland and the EU single market.

Photo: AP
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a press conference in Windsor. Photo: AP

The prime minister also said the deal would end food produced in accordance with UK rules being unable to be shipped and sold in Northern Ireland.

Under the new deal, Northern Ireland would have the same goods, drinks and medicine as the rest of the UK: “We have removed all sense of border in the Irish Sea.”

It also amends part of the existing protocol to allow Westminster to set VAT rates in Northern Ireland.

The deal was also intended to address the “democratic deficit” problem that so vexed unionists who refuse to be treated differently from the rest of the UK, and which led to the suspension of the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland.

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What is the new deal with Northern Ireland?

Read more:
Prime Minister unveils ‘Windsor Framework’ Brexit deal
Five key text passages

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
What are the seven DUP tests?

On Monday, the Prime Minister unveiled the ‘Stormont brake’, which was designed to address Northern Ireland’s exposure to EU goods rules.

Under the new agreement, Stormont’s assembly will be able to oppose the new rules if a total of 30 members from at least two parties decide to activate the brake.

Mr Sunak said it was a “powerful new protection based on cross-community consent”.

The question is whether cross-community voting, requiring a majority of unionists and Irish nationalists rather than a simple majority, will be enough to satisfy the DUP.

And although the prime minister told MPs the deal removed 1,700 pages of EU law and “we have taken control beyond a reasonable doubt”, officials also acknowledged that the Windsor framework does not remove EU law or the jurisdiction of the European Courts from Northern Ireland.

And the key question in all of this is will the prime minister’s risk of catching nettles pay off? He clearly convinced Brussels and Mrs von der Leyen, but now he has much more prickly characters at his disposal – and the outcome is still far from certain.

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“Some issues of concern” in the new NI deal

DUP is predictably playing his cards close to the chest as expected.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that while “significant progress” had been made, “there is no denying the fact that in some sectors of our economy EU law still applies” and said the DUP would now look into the details of the deal.

Unionists are also awaiting legal advice and a verdict from a ‘star chamber’ of European Research Group lawyers, who will pore over this deal, as they did with Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s deal, to see if the deal will restore Britain’s sovereignty.

Much depends on the decisions of the unions.

As one senior Brexiteer told me this week, it would be “grumpy” for a Tory MP not to back the deal if the DUP is happy.

Mr Sunak has certainly convinced some of his Brexit supporters today.

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Baker welcomes ‘big win’

One senior person told me: “It looks pretty good and is better than I expected”, while Northern Ireland secretary and Brexiteer Chris Heaton-Harris and Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker called on colleagues to support the deal.

“I would resign if I felt I couldn’t support the deal. So, you know, I support this out of the goodness of my heart,” Baker told Sky News on Monday night.

But there are also rumors that this may not be the dunk Mr. Sunak is hoping for.

When I asked one of the leading Brexit supporters how significant it was that fellow travelers Mr Heaton-Harris and Mr Baker were happy, they replied that the couple “are just salesmen” and it is the ERG’s job to investigate this text.

“A quick read makes it clear that the EU and the ETS are adhering to this deal,” said the senior conservative, adding that Stormont’s lockdown threshold was too high.

“It’s like a budget. Sounds good on day one until the details start to sort it out,” they said.

As for Mr Johnson, he is also waiting for his time to see how this deal will be absorbed. Sources close to him say that the former prime minister “is still studying and considering the government’s proposals”.

Number 10 is delighted with how the day went and one of the elders told me it “couldn’t have gone better”.

This is a watershed moment that could prove not only a breakthrough for restoring separation of powers in Northern Ireland, but also for resetting relations with the EU and Prime Minister Sunak.

So far, he has been a disappointing prime minister who has failed to impress his party or the public. Take that off, and maybe he’ll be able to survive the honeymoon that eluded him when he was presented with the crown last fall.

It is clear that Mr Sunak needs something momentous to turn him from caretaker to the prime minister sitting in number 10, into a credible one with at least a chance of turning things around for the Tories ahead of the 2024 election.

He and his team know that finally threading the Brexit needle where previous ones have failed would be a very good start.

The question is, will his enemies let him?

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