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DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson speaking to the media last night Alamy Stock Photo
return to stormont

UK and EU agree change to post-Brexit NI trade rules after DUP reaches deal

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the changes show the “naysayers are wrong”.

LAST UPDATE | 30 Jan

THE UK AND EU have agreed a significant change affecting the movement of some goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – as politicians in Northern Ireland gear up for a return to powersharing.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the changes show the “naysayers are wrong”, after the UK-EU joint committee expanded the category of “not at risk” goods entering Northern Ireland.

Some trade experts said the decision amounts to a legal change under the Windsor Framework, while also allowing Northern Ireland to better benefit from free trade agreement secured by the UK government covering agri-food foods such as New Zealand lamb.

It comes after Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris earlier played down the need for any fresh renegotiations with the EU under the proposal deal to get the DUP back into Stormont.

“This demonstrates that the naysayers are wrong. There will be legal changes,” Donaldson said this afternoon. 

“I asked people to wait and study the outcome rather than follow misinformed speculation. There is more to come. The DUP is delivering real change.”

The Northern Ireland Secretary and Downing Street were today keen to stress that the agreement on the table will not stop the UK from exploiting post-Brexit freedoms when it comes to moving away from Brussels’ trade rules. 

Heaton-Harris, who said the terms of the deal to restore the Stormont Assembly will be published on Wednesday, hailed the joint committee decision. 

The lengthy wrangling over the shape of an agreement to resurrect powersharing has primarily been between the DUP and the Westminster government.

It had been thought that any move to remove all checks and customs paperwork on GB-NI trade would require EU support, as the arrangements that govern Irish Sea trade – the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework – have been jointly agreed between Brussels and London.

The European Commission said the proposal came “following in-depth technical discussions with the UK”. Vice-president Maros Sefcovic described it as “based on a careful assessment of trade data and replies to the needs of Northern Ireland businesses, while protecting our single market”.

Heaton-Harris had earlier declined to say if he had held negotiations with Brussels before the DUP agreed to participate in talks to revive devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The Cabinet minister, who was due in Belfast today to speak with political figures in the region, said the agreement “hasn’t affected divergence in any shape or form” in relation to Brexit.

In its report, the committee said the divergence “would not be acceptable” and would constitute “yet another example of the damage that current arrangements under the Windsor Framework are causing to the union”. 

dup-leader-sir-jeffery-donaldson-mp-during-a-press-conference-at-hinch-distillery-ballynahinch-after-the-dup-party-executiveheld-a-private-party-meeting-about-going-back-into-stormont-at-larchfield Donaldson speaking during last night's press conference Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

DUP meeting

After more than five hours of intensive negotiations amongst the DUP executive last night, Donaldson told reporters that a deal had been struck after 1am. 

The DUP leader today expressed hope that the executive could be back in place within days.

The parties eligible to participate in a revived ministerial executive are due to meet later today to discuss the next steps. 

Donaldson conceded that his party had not got everything it wanted in the negotiations with the UK Government, but he said the deal provided the basis for the DUP to drop its two-year blockade on devolution in Belfast. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the restoration of Stormont this afternoon. 

In a statement, a Government spokesperson said Varadkar and Sunak welcomed the developments overnight, and both leaders said they hope this paves the way for the early restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. 

The return of Stormont will also see the Treasury release a £3.3 billion (€3.85 billion) package to support under-pressure public services in Northern Ireland, including £600 million (€700 million) to settle public sector pay claims.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed today that a package designed to settle the demands of striking public-sector workers in Northern Ireland this year will be “available to an incoming executive”.

The DUP has been using a veto power to block Stormont’s devolved institutions for two years in protest at the post-Brexit arrangements that have created trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Reaction

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said today that the return of Stormont with her party’s vice president Michelle O’Neill as first minister will be a moment of “very great significance”. 

McDonald said the return of a functioning Assembly had been a long time coming.

O’Neill said the next number of days are crucial to get the Stormont powersharing institutions up and running.

“I do think it is a day of optimism and some hope for the wider public,” she said. 

left-to-right-sinn-fein-representatives-mla-conor-murphy-president-mary-lou-mcdonald-and-vice-president-michelle-oneill-speak-to-the-media-in-the-great-hall-at-stormont-belfast-as-powersharing Sinn Féin representatives MLA Conor Murphy, president Mary Lou McDonald and vice-president Michelle O'Neill, speak to the media in the Great Hall at Stormont Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Speaking on his way into Cabinet this morning, Varadkar said: “We haven’t seen the fine detail of what’s been agreed just yet.

“So obviously we’ll need to see that and and be confident that it doesn’t have any negative consequences for the Windsor Framework or for the Good Friday Agreement. I don’t anticipate that it does but we have to see the exact detail of that first.”

Varadkar also said the DUP’s decision to back the deal to address the party’s post-Brexit concerns is “really important”.

He said the Irish Government is “very keen to work closely with the new Executive to do all that we can do to make sure that it’s successful and that it lasts because success and sustainability are really important”.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has also welcomed the DUP’s decision. 

Criticism

Donaldson announced his conditional support for a Stormont return at post-1am press conference in Co Down.

That came after he had secured what he said was the “decisive” backing of the 130-strong party executive during a five-hour meeting last night.

He said DUP party officers – a key 12-strong decision-making body – had also “mandated” him to move forward on the basis he was proposing.

protesters-outside-larchfield-estate-where-the-dup-are-holding-a-private-party-meeting-they-are-calling-for-the-dup-not-to-go-back-into-stormont-until-the-irish-sea-border-is-removed-picture-date-m Protesters outside Larchfield Estate where the DUP were holding the private party meeting Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The DUP’s last ditch attempt to reach a consensus was somewhat undermined by loyalist activist Jamie Bryson live tweeting the entire meeting, with an apparent source feeding him information on what was being said in the room. 

Support for the deal is not unanimous within the DUP and several senior figures remain fiercely opposed to the proposed agreement to restore powersharing.

Asked about the potential for dissent within the party, Donaldson added: “I am confident that all members of the party will accept what was a decisive move by the party executive.”

Around 50 loyalist and unionist protesters assembled outside last night’s meeting at the Larchfield estate in Co Down, many carrying posters and banners warning against a DUP “sellout”.

Includes reporting by Eimer McAuley and Press Association

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