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Rishi Sunak is facing condemnation from the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party as he makes a surprise trip to Belfast in a high-stakes gamble to resolve a two-year dispute. The PM is set to try and win the approval of Northern Irish parties for a deal with the EU to finally resolve the long-running row over the protocol which determines the region’s post-Brexit trade.
The more anti-European members of the Conservative party have already criticised Mr Sunak for bending too far to the whims of the bloc. Depending on the terms of the agreement – if any – the Prime Minister manages to achieve, their support for him may be lost entirely.
The Northern Ireland protocol, agreed upon as part of Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready” 2020 Brexit deal has been lambasted by Northern Irish unionists, die-hard conservatives and businesses alike for hindering their ability to trade with mainland Britain.
The protocol seeked to avoid creating a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in order to respect the terms of the Good Friday Agreement – and to do so, kept the devolved country within the EU single market for goods.
However, this effectively created a border between Northern Ireland and Britain within the Irish Sea for those businesses looking to trade within the UK – something Mr Johnson had explicitly promised voters he would avoid doing. The UK has since been in a fierce war of words with the EU in an effort to find a solution that does not create a divide within the country.
Mr Sunak is set to hold talks in Belfast before heading on to Munich on Saturday, where he is expected to meet with EU leaders in an effort to finally settle the row over the protocol, reported the FT. The Prime Minister arrived in the region on Thursday night with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, and will hold talks with Stormont parties and other stakeholders over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Friday.
He last visited Northern Ireland in December. This latest visit will be seen as a signal that a deal over the trading arrangements for the region could be unveiled within days. Any deal would need to achieve the support of the EU member nations – although the changes that have been offered by the commission so far are widely as seen as popular.
The suggested deal, in its current state, would create two lanes for goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland.
A “green lane” would be for goods intended to remain in the devolved country, while a “red lane” would be for those heading to the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU single market – and would still be subject to checks.
However, the EU insists it must have oversight of trade in Northern Ireland, with the European Court of Justice, which enforces the rules of the single market, expected to maintain a role. But if this remains part of the final deal, the die-hard Brexiteers of the party will not look kindly on Mr Sunak.
The PM has not discussed the potential agreement with the pro-Brexit Conservative European Research Group, according to its deputy chair David Jones.
He said that giving EU judges any jurisdiction in the UK “would not be acceptable to any other country in the world”.
Mr Jones added: “There would be general dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Conservative party, which would not bode well for the leadership.”
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But first Mr Sunak will need to convince the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland of the deal. The DUP has been boycotting the region’s assembly out of protest at the protocol.
Lord Nigel Dodds, a former deputy leader of the DUP, insisted his party would maintain its block on devolution if an agreement falls short of the measures contained within the UK Government’s own stalled draft legislation to unilaterally rip up the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
Lord Dodds, who now leads the party in the House of Lords, said the continued application of EU law in Northern Ireland would not be acceptable.
Mr Jones added the deal will be a “futile exercise” unless it can convince the DUP to return to a normal state of affairs.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “Whilst talks with the EU are ongoing, ministers continue to engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.”
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