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Saturday 10 June 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Alamy Stock Photo Rishi Sunak.
# Brexit
Rishi Sunak arrives in Northern Ireland amid speculation of imminent protocol deal
The British Prime Minister will discuss the NI Protocol negotiations with political parties.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 16th 2023, 7:45 PM

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak has travelled to the North ahead of talks with Stormont politicians amid growing speculation that a deal between the UK and EU over the controversial post-Brexit Protocol is imminent.

The Tory leader is joined by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris ahead of talks with political parties in the region over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sunak will hold talks with Stormont parties and other stakeholders tomorrow.

He last visited Northern Ireland in December and his latest visit will be seen as a signal that a deal over the trading arrangements for the region could be unveiled within days. 

A spokeswoman for Sunak 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.

“The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are travelling to Northern Ireland this evening to speak to political parties as part of this engagement process.”

However, a senior DUP figure has warned that a failure to end the imposition of EU law in Northern Ireland in any new UK/EU deal on post-Brexit trade will ensure Stormont’s power-sharing impasse continues.

Nigel Dodds 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.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill includes provisions that would remove the oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the region.

While it is understood the EU and UK are close to signing off a deal that would reduce Protocol red tape on the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, there is no expectation that Brussels is willing to agree to ending the application of EU law in the region.

The EU contends a fundamental plank of the Protocol – namely that Northern Ireland traders can sell freely into the European single market – is dependent on the operation of EU rules in region.

Speculation is intensifying that a deal could be unveiled imminently, potentially early next week.

Following his visit to Northern Ireland, Sunak is set to join European leaders in Germany this weekend for the Munich Security Conference and the protocol is likely to feature in discussions on the margins.

Dodds, a former deputy leader of the DUP who now leads the party in the UK’s House of Lords, said the continued application of EU law in Northern Ireland would not be acceptable to his party.

His comments, and similar remarks from other senior colleagues, suggest a new deal between the EU and UK may not ultimately be enough to convince the DUP to return to power-sharing at Stormont.

The DUP is currently blocking the functioning of the devolved institutions in Belfast in protest at the protocol.

In 2021, the DUP set out seven tests by which it will judge changes to the protocol. Those tests did not include a specific reference to ECJ oversight.

Nationalist MP Claire Hanna from the SDLP said removal of single market access would have serious ramifications in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the agri-food sector that involves so much cross border movement of goods on the island of Ireland.

She said it looked like an EU/UK deal on the protocol was “imminent”.

“I think we’ve all heard the rumours that the deal has been done and sitting there and I think it’s positive, it’s less friction and maintaining of dual market access, so I think that’s a win for this region,” she said.

Hanna told BBC Radio Ulster that the DUP should be challenged to explain what the consequences would be if EU law was removed in Northern Ireland.

“What they mean, and they should be forced to spell it out, what they mean is they don’t want us to have access to the single market and not only is that something that is completely rejected by a substantial number of parties and the majority of our MLAs, it means no dual market access that even the DUP lauded at the inception of the protocol, and it means no integrated economy,” she said.

“It essentially means no agri-food economy, it means massive disruption to dairy (industry) and many of those other issues.”

She added: “I think there are people in the DUP who know they are on a hiding to nothing if they keep going further down this dark alley.

“We know this is hard, compromise is hard, none of the options are particularly brilliant, but just saying ‘no’ is no longer an option.”

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