The leader of Northern Ireland’s main unionist party has called for “further clarification, reworking and change” to the new post-Brexit trade deal for the region agreed by London and Brussels after months of wrangling.
In his most detailed assessment of the Windsor framework since it was unveiled last month, Democratic Unionist Party head Sir Jeffrey Donaldson challenged the continued application of EU laws in Northern Ireland and complained the deal failed to remove all barriers to trade with Great Britain.
Donaldson’s comments in Washington, where he arrived on Tuesday for St Patrick’s day celebrations, came as a panel of experts he has appointed led by former DUP first minister Peter Robinson canvassed unionist opinion on the deal.
“We have already commenced discussions with the UK Government on a range of issues where we require further clarity and where we believe more work will be needed,” Donaldson said in a statement.
The DUP has been boycotting Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly and executive at Stormont since last May to press for sweeping changes to trading arrangements for the region.
The Windsor deal has been broadly welcomed as a vast improvement on the current Northern Ireland protocol, which put a customs border in the Irish Sea for goods entering the region from Britain.
Donaldson conceded that the Windsor framework represented “significant progress”, but said “there remains key areas of concern which require further clarification, reworking and change as well as seeing further legal text”.
The DUP leader, who is considered a party moderate who would like to return to Stormont, has given his panel until the end of the month to report back.
The deadline makes it virtually impossible for the Northern Ireland assembly and executive to be reinstated before April 10, the 25th anniversary of the US-brokered Good Friday Agreement which ended three decades of conflict and established power-sharing.
The DUP leader could come under pressure from US politicians — especially after Joe Biden, who has endorsed the Windsor framework, confirmed he would visit Northern Ireland to mark the anniversary, although no date has yet been set.
Analysts believe that despite Donaldson’s tough rhetoric, he is nonetheless preparing the ground for a gradual return to Stormont.
Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, said: “My instinct is they’ll go back because there’s nowhere else to go,” he said.
“I think we might see a graduated response following the DUP panel’s report, for example, to elect a speaker but hold back on the executive . . . until they are completely satisfied, and that will take until after [council elections on] May, ” agreed Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University.
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who has been negotiating with unionists in recent months “to try to get the Windsor agreement passed”, was upbeat that “most of them” in the DUP would support it.
“Hopefully we should be going into the second half of the year with the institutions open,” he said.
A new Lucid Talk poll for the Belfast Telegraph last weekend found nearly three-quarters of DUP supporters still opposed the Windsor framework.
But the number of unionists who supported continuing the Stormont boycott until the protocol was scrapped or significantly changed has fallen to 54 per cent from 66 per cent six weeks ago.