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Rishi Sunak has hailed “the prospect of power-sharing back up and running” within days in Northern Ireland, as the UK government published details of a plan to revive the Stormont executive.
The prime minister said the Democratic Unionist party, which has boycotted the power-sharing executive for almost two years, had taken “significant steps” towards ending the impasse.
The deal, set out in an 80-page command paper titled “Safeguarding the Union”, includes a broad package of proposals that, taken together, the government said would “fully protect Northern Ireland and its place in the union”.
The plans include ensuring that 80 per cent of goods going to the region from Great Britain do so without checks, and the creation of a new “Intertrade UK” body to promote Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
There would also be legislation explicitly prohibiting Northern Ireland being excluded from the benefits of any future international treaty signed by the British government.
Downing Street insisted the deal had been negotiated “by the UK and DUP” and that the EU was not party to the talks, even though current trade arrangements for Northern Ireland were jointly agreed last year by London and Brussels in the so-called Windsor framework.
A spokesman for Sunak said the deal was “not about altering the fundamentals of the Windsor framework” but added there would be “significant” changes in the way it is operated.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP leader, told the BBC on Wednesday: “For goods coming in from the UK, our objective was to remove the Irish Sea border, and that is what we have achieved.
“We’re no longer in a situation where if you bring goods in to sell in Northern Ireland, you need a customs declaration,” he added.
The idea of a trade border within the UK is anathema to the pro-union DUP. Addressing that issue has consumed months of negotiations between London and Belfast. Gavin Robinson, a DUP MP, told the House of Commons: “We have turned the impossible into the possible.”
“This is a deal that, taken as a whole, is the right one for Northern Ireland and the union,” Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, told parliament, saying now was the time for the region’s elected representatives to return to the Stormont power-sharing executive.
Michelle O’Neill, the region’s first minister-designate, said she expected the Stormont assembly to be reconvened on Saturday, when a Speaker, first and deputy first ministers and ministers will be appointed.
If Stormont returns, Sinn Féin will make history by becoming the first nationalist party to hold the office of first minister since the region was created more than a century ago for the then protestant unionist majority.
The political paralysis of the past two years has deepened a crisis in public finances and services in one of the UK’s poorest regions.
The Westminster government has promised that a £3.3bn financial package, including a pay uplift for public sector workers, would be available when Stormont returns.
“It is time to build on the progress of the last 25 years,” Heaton-Harris said, referring to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the region’s three decades-long Troubles conflict.
“Today, we have presented a plan that will deliver the long-term change that Northern Ireland needs. It will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in our union and guarantee the free flow of goods across the entire UK,” he added.
A vote is expected in the House of Commons on Thursday to ratify the changes.