N Ireland’s unionists to ‘consider the detail’ on protocol deal

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, has said he would take time to study the new Brexit trade deal announced by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday.

The reaction of the region’s main unionist party to the reforms of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol will be the acid test for Sunak’s bid to end a damaging three year dispute with Brussels over the region’s trading arrangements and restore its devolved government.

Donaldson, whose party last year refused to join a power-sharing executive at Stormont until sweeping changes were made to the protocol, dismissed as “entirely fictional” reports that the DUP had already decided to back Monday’s deal.

“We’ll take our time to consider the detail and measure a deal against our seven tests,” he tweeted, referring to the party’s key demands.

“We will need legal text and clarification on issues before arriving at a position,” added a senior DUP official.

Sunak told a news conference on Monday that all sides would be given the necessary time and space to digest the agreement, dubbed the “New Windsor Framework”.

He added that it would give Northern Irish legislators the power to halt the application of new single market rules applying in the region, through a mechanism called the “Stormont brake”.

Donaldson can claim that he has successfully pushed the EU into accepting changes on the protocol that go beyond anything Brussels initially said was possible.

But the hardliners in his party want no EU laws to apply in Northern Ireland at all, and no oversight of the trading arrangements by the European Court of Justice. Despite the changes agreed by Sunak and von der Leyen, the ECJ retains a role in the revised deal.

Polls show a majority of DUP voters do not want to return to the Stormont assembly and power-sharing executive unless the protocol is either removed or substantially changed.

“Bearing in mind that such a large proportion of their supporters want the protocol scrapped altogether . . . the continued existence of the protocol is going to be a challenge,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast.

“The DUP leadership will need to enable their supporters not to think they’re immediately being sold out,” she added.

Brexit left Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods but former prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to customs checks in the Irish Sea. The new deal seeks to streamline this system.

Alex Kane, a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party, expected the DUP to say: “Look, we managed to move this great European Union — everyone said we couldn’t, and we have. Obviously, we can’t get everything . . . but we’ve come as close as possible.”

However, one well-informed former DUP special adviser was wary. “The only way you could sell this is ‘we don’t like it but this is the end of the road, our choice is now not whether we like the deal or not, but whether we return to Stormont given the fact that the deal has been done’”.

After poring over the text with legal experts, Donaldson will consult the DUP’s other 11 officers and then to the wider 100-strong party executive.

Experts say he could seek to delay his verdict on the deal until after council elections on May 18.

Despite the political uncertainty, business leaders were encouraged by Monday’s announcement.

“I’d be surprised if it’s completely satisfactory but it should be capable of improvement over time,” said Archie Norman, chair of retailer Marks and Spencer, who has been highly critical of the protocol.

Stuart Rose, chair of Asda, the supermarket, hailed the deal as a pragmatic solution. “Chapeau to the prime minister. The grown-ups are back in the room.”

But whether the agreement would secure the restoration of Stormont was unclear.

Northern Ireland’s traditional nationalist and unionist communities have to share power under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the region’s three decades-long conflict involving republican paramilitaries fighting to end British rule and loyalists battling to stay in the UK.

The run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Agreement in April has already been marred by the attempted murder last week of an off-duty police officer. The attack has been claimed by dissident republican group the New IRA.

There are also fears of loyalist violence. “Tensions are very high and many feel that the deal will not go anywhere near far enough,” said one loyalist activist.

“This is not just about the protocol,” said Kane. “It’s about the efforts of sectors of loyalism to kill off the Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly full stop.”

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