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Thursday 1 June 2023 Dublin: 11°C
PA UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a Q&A session with local business leaders during a visit to Lisburn, Co Antrim.
# windsor framework
Sunak pleads with MPs to give DUP 'time and space' to consider Brexit deal
The view of the DUP will be crucial if the deal is to help restore power-sharing at Stormont.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 28th 2023, 10:56 PM

RISHI SUNAK HAS told Tory MPs to give the DUP the “time and space” to consider his Brexit deal as they were warned it is the best offer they will get.

The British Prime Minister said he was “confident” they would back it as he urged colleagues not to create another “Westminster drama” after his new Windsor agreement for Northern Ireland was broadly welcomed.

But Conservatives were waiting with “bated breath” to see if the DUP will back the deal which is hoped to restore powersharing to Stormont after a year-long absence.

Sunak addressed Tory backbenchers at the 1922 Committee in the Commons this evening after a visit to Northern Ireland in an attempt to shore up support.

He was understood to have told colleagues he had “spent a lot of time” with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson as he seeks to break the deadlock in the region.

“And I would just say one thing to you all: we should give him and the DUP time and space,” Sunak said as he acknowledged a “spectrum of views” within the unionist party.

“So let’s not pressure them for an instant answer,” Sunak added.

“Let’s also remember that the last thing the public want is another Westminster drama.”

During an address in Northern Ireland earlier today, Sunak said that the deal with the EU yesterday would create “the world’s most exciting economic zone” , providing Northern Ireland with access to both EU and British markets. 

However, his comments caused an immediate climb down from Downing Street.

“The British people made a decision in 2016 and we are seeing the benefits of that decision, whether that’s in the ability to change our environment laws, some of the tax elements the Prime Minister talked about just today, in fact,” a Downing Street spokesperson said. 

“With regards to Northern Ireland, it is simply a fact that because of our respect for the Good Friday Agreement and the central importance; Northern Ireland’s unique position means it needs to have access to both markets, not least to avoid a border on the island of Ireland, which nobody wants to see.”

Sunak spoke to leaders of some of Stormont’s political parties, who urged the DUP to end its boycott.

The British Prime Minister said he believed “hand on heart” that the Windsor Framework addressed the concerns expressed about the current post-Brexit trading arrangements which led to the DUP walking away from Stormont.

The framework removes the Northern Ireland Protocol’s barriers on trade across the Irish Sea and hands a “veto” to politicians in Stormont on EU law – a set of concessions from Brussels that went further than some expected.

But it still includes a role for the European Court of Justice, with the DUP and Tory backbenchers set to study the details of the complex set of arrangements in the coming days.

britains-prime-minister-rishi-sunak-holds-a-qa-session-with-local-business-leaders-during-a-visit-to-coca-cola-hbc-in-lisburn-northern-ireland-tuesday-feb-28-2023-sunak-traveled-to-belfast-on-t Alamy Stock Photo Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a Q&A session with local business leaders during a visit to Coca-Cola HBC in Lisburn, Northern Ireland Alamy Stock Photo

Any resistance to the deal from the DUP will most likely not result in changes to the framework, as reopening an agreement which had taken months to negotiate is not viewed as a workable solution.

With opposition parties in the Commons offering support, there is little chance of it failing to receive support in Parliament when put to a vote, as has been promised, so the DUP will not be effectively handed a veto over the process.

Sunak, on his visit to Northern Ireland to sell the benefits of the deal, said: “People need the time to engage with it, understand it, ask the questions.

“We’re going to give them that and answer the questions in the meantime, but I’m confident they will come to see this for what it is, which is I think a historic achievement that gets the balance right for Northern Ireland.”

But, he added, “we’ve not been shy about saying ‘I think the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve their government’.”

Speaking to RTÉ’s Six One News, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said “yesterday would not have happened if it hadn’t of been for the strong stance” of his party. 

“We need to examine it, consider it carefully and come to a considered position,” Donaldson said. 

He said the DUP has asked lawyers, who are experts in constitutional law, to examine the framework. 

“We will take time to study this,” Donaldson said.

“Is it quite a complex framework. We’ve got the legal text, we have asked some lawyers to look at that who are experts in constitutional law, we are looking at the political declaration that accompanies the legal text and of course the UK government’s command paper.”

Meeting with Northern Ireland leaders

Sunak today met Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, and Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie in Co Antrim.

The DUP and SDLP leaders are currently in London and Sinn Féin Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said she had spoken to Sunak on the phone.

“The priority must now be getting Stormont up and moving without delay,” O’Neill said.

Long said “we need to get a decision from the DUP and we need to get back to our day jobs” while Beattie said “you could have an executive now, and at the same time we could be looking at this framework”.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC: “We’re reasonable people but we want to ensure that what the Prime Minister has said is matched by what is actually in the agreement itself.”

naomi-long-leader-of-the-alliance-party-and-andrew-muir-alliance-party-mla-speaking-to-the-media-in-templepatrick-co-antrim-after-meeting-with-prime-minister-rishi-sunak-during-his-visit-to-nort Alamy Stock Photo Naomi Long and Andrew Muir, Alliance Party MLA, speaking to the media in Templepatrick, Co Antrim, after meeting with Rishi Sunak Alamy Stock Photo

Critics were swift to point out that the entire UK had full access to the EU’s single market before Brexit.

Sunak told BBC Radio 4’s Today that the role of EU law was for single market measures aimed at avoiding the need for a hard border with Ireland.

“In practical terms, something that is important to people in Northern Ireland is not having a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, I think that’s important to everybody in fact, but also it’s important for businesses to have access to the EU single market,” he said.

“As long as the people of Northern Ireland consent to that arrangement, then that’s why there is a small and limited role for EU law in Northern Ireland – what we are talking about is less than 3% of EU laws that apply in Northern Ireland and they apply very specifically for the purpose that I just mentioned.”

Sunak also said that border posts for checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea were mainly aimed at consignments destined for Ireland and the EU – the so-called “red lane”.

“The border posts are there very specifically for the red lane, because as part of having a green lane, where goods flow freely within our UK internal market, if goods are actually going to the Republic of Ireland, ie going into the EU, that’s not our country and it’s entirely reasonable that we have checks for those types of goods.

“We also check when we suspect criminality or smuggling, and that’s something that the Government’s always said that it would do and has been long-standing practice, actually.”

Stormont brake

MPs are expected to get a vote on the deal, but Downing Street has not so far said when or how such a vote might take place.

A key part of the deal is an emergency “Stormont brake” on changes to EU goods rules that can be pulled by the Northern Ireland Assembly, with No 10 hopeful that it will ensure concerns over a “democratic deficit” are addressed.

Sunak called it a “very powerful mechanism” for Stormont to use when it has concerns over EU law, as he heralded the overall deal as a “decisive breakthrough”.

“Together we have changed the original Protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor Framework,” he said.

“Today’s agreement delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”

prime-minister-rishi-sunak-left-and-northern-ireland-secretary-chris-heaton-harris-hold-a-qa-session-with-local-business-leaders-during-a-visit-to-coca-cola-hbc-in-lisburn-co-antrim-in-northern-ir Alamy Stock Photo British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris in Lisburn, Co Antrim today Alamy Stock Photo

DUP ‘right to take their time’

Leaders in the EU and beyond hailed the progress too, with von der Leyen praising the “new chapter in our partnership” while French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the “important decision”.

US President Joe Biden said the deal was an “essential step” in protecting the Good Friday Agreement, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the EU had moved “a lot” to facilitate a deal.

Speaking on Morning Ireland, Enterprise Minister Simon Coveney said the deal is a “really significant step in the right direction”.

Coveney said the DUP should not be rushed to endorse or support the deal over the coming days.

“They’re right to take their time here because this has been a really difficult issue for unionism as a whole and a very difficult issue for the DUP, and so any resolution is something that of course, they’ll want to fully understand,” he said.

Coveney said it is “unlikely that we’re going to go back into negotiation” given that the Windsor Framework has replaced the previous Protocol deal.

Asked whether it will be enough to convince the DUP to return to power-sharing in Stormont, he said: “That’s a matter for the DUP.

“As we know, they’ll make their own decisions. They always do. They won’t be pushed around and they won’t be rushed, and so I think the deal will speak for itself in terms of the content of that deal.”

As well as his trip to Northern Ireland, Sunak will continue efforts to win over Tory Eurosceptics and his predecessor Boris Johnson, who is yet to give a verdict on the new deal which replaces the Northern Ireland Protocol he signed.

Sunak indicated he had discussed the deal with Johnson – “of course I speak to the former prime minister” – and is expected to address Tory MPs at a private meeting in Westminster later.

Additional reporting from Hayley Halpin, Jane Moore and Niall O’Connor.

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