No 10 defends the handling of Northern Ireland’s protocol talks

  • By Kate Whannell
  • Political reporter, BBC News

No 10 has insisted on engaging with DUP and Conservative MPs as the Prime Minister seeks agreement with the EU on post-Brexit rules in Northern Ireland.

Rishi Sunak tries to solve problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol, introduced after the UK left the EU.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said further EU concessions were needed before a new deal could be agreed.

Former minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said the deal was doomed without the approval of unionist parties and Brexit MPs.

Sir Jeffrey said a new deal “is possible” in “the next few days”.

But the EU would have to accept that goods traded in Northern Ireland were subject to British laws and standards for the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) to agree, he added.

Hopes that changes could be made this week have faded somewhat, although Downing Street suggests a deal could still happen soon.

Earlier, the prime minister told his ministers that efforts to reach a deal were focused on securing Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, protecting the 1998 Good Friday peace deal and ensuring the free flow of trade in Britain’s single market.

The current rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, were negotiated by Boris Johnson and came into force in 2021.

They introduced checks on goods sent from the UK to Northern Ireland, to circumvent the need for checks at the UK border with Ireland.

The rules have proved highly unpopular with trade unionists in Northern Ireland, and have soured relations between the UK and the EU.

In protest at the rules, the DUP boycotted devolution in Northern Ireland, meaning it has been without a functioning devolved government since February last year.

A majority of members of the Stormont Assembly are in favor of the protocol remaining in place in one form or another.

Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) have said improvements to the protocol are needed to facilitate implementation.

British and European negotiators have been locked in talks for over a year to secure changes that will satisfy business groups and politicians.

“Life Doesn’t Work That Way”

On his Conservative Home podcast, Rees-Mogg argued there was “no point” in agreeing a deal that does not have the support of the DUP.

“I don’t know why so much political capital has been spent on anything without getting the DUP and ERG (European Research Group of Conservative MPs) in place first,” he said.

He compared Sunak’s approach to that of former Prime Minister Theresa May, who, he said, had presented a policy in the hope that people would “conveniently fall behind” it, he said.

“Life doesn’t work like that. It’s important to get support for that first before finalizing the details, and that doesn’t seem to have been done here.”

Both the DUP and some Conservative MPs believe Sunak made a mistake by traveling to Belfast late last week, unannounced, to try, as some saw it, to “bounce” the Democratic Unionists into agreement, the BBC’s Chris Mason and Jess Parker report.

“He jumped the gun,” one Tory MP said privately.

“Dead Letter”

“It’s not a deal to be done. It’s back to the drawing board,” said another Conservative backbencher.

In his podcast, Rees-Mogg urged Sunak to pass the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would give the UK government the power to tear up parts of the current arrangement with the EU.

His comments echo those of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who at the weekend urged his successor not to drop the proposed law.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman also appeared to indicate her support, describing the legislation as one of the “biggest tools” to address issues surrounding trade in the Irish Sea.

But former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland has claimed that since the bill was introduced in 2022, the situation has changed.

Writing in the House magazine, he said: “The bill has outlived its political usefulness and no longer has any legal basis. It is the proverbial dead letter.”

A deal that the prime minister said was within touching distance could still slip through his fingers.

Rishi Sunak has felt the heat on two fronts – the DUP and his own Tory MPs.

It is a formidable force for a prime minister desperate to avoid confrontation in a deeply divided Tory party.

But he doesn’t need DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to say yes to a deal – he just needs him not to say no.

It will allow the UK and the EU to publish their protocol agreement and begin the job of selling it beyond the DUP to businesses in Northern Ireland.

But as each day passes without a deal being struck, Rishi Sunak will start to feel the heat from Brussels.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters that “intensive negotiations continue” between Britain and the EU, but added that outstanding issues and “long-standing challenges” needed to be addressed.

He rejected suggestions that DUP MPs and Conservative Brexiteers had not been sufficiently involved.

“We have spoken to related parties at appropriate times throughout this process,” he said, adding that “engagement will continue as we continue to negotiate”.

Foreign Minister James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris held new talks with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic on Tuesday afternoon.

Ahead of that meeting, Sefcovic told reporters that the “finish line” of the talks could “clearly” be seen, but added “being close does not mean being done”.

Last week, Sunak went to Belfast to meet politicians in Northern Ireland and then Germany, where he met European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, raising speculation that a deal was imminent.

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