UK prime minister Rishi Sunak arrived in Belfast on Tuesday to sell his post-Brexit trade deal for Northern Ireland to business leaders after the region’s main unionist party welcomed progress but said concerns remained.
Sunak unveiled the so-called Windsor framework with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Monday, hailing it as a “new chapter” after years of fraught relations with the EU.
He vowed it was a “huge step forward” that would address unionists’ concerns by slashing red tape, ensure only a “small and limited” role for EU law and the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland and give the region’s Stormont assembly an “incredibly powerful” say over new EU rules.
Sunak told the BBC he understood why unionist politicians would want to take “the time and the space to consider the details” before deciding whether to back the deal.
“I’ve spent a lot of time listening to unionist communities from Northern Ireland and indeed all parties that I’ve engaged with, because this is about everybody. I have taken the time to understand their concerns,” he said.
“And I’m confident that when they go through it, they will see that this does . . . address the concerns that people had.”
He also held out the prospect of a big increase in investment should the DUP agree to the deal: “I’ve spent a lot of time engaging with business groups and what they say is if we get this resolved in the way that we have, that will unlock an enormous investment,” he said.
“Remember, Northern Ireland has this very special position where it has access to the UK market, it has access to the EU market which makes it an incredibly attractive place to invest,” he added.
The Democratic Unionist party, the region’s largest pro-UK party, said the fact the deal had gone beyond what the EU initially said was possible was a vindication of its decision to boycott Stormont since last May and press for sweeping changes to the old Northern Ireland protocol.
“We recognise that progress has been made across a number of areas about which we had concerns,” DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC. “We are reasonable people,” he said.
But he added: “We continue to have some concerns.”
The deal appeared to mollify even some of the hardest-line Eurosceptics in the Conservative party, with early signs that any rebellion from the prime minister’s own backbenches could be limited.
But it was not immediately clear whether it would achieve one of its key objectives: restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved government, as Donaldson faced sharp criticism of the new deal from some in his party.
Sunak said Monday’s agreement would make it easier to ship items including pets, medicines, parcels, plants and sausages between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — which polls show are among peoples’ top concerns — and end “any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”.
“It means people will feel they’re part of the same country,” Sunak told the BBC.
He said there would only be checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland where officials suspect “criminality or smuggling”.
The prime minister said that Northern Irish businesses producing goods for the UK internal market will only have to follow “less than 3 per cent” of EU single market rules.
But UK officials conceded Monday’s agreement would not remove EU law from Northern Ireland or European Court of Justice jurisdiction over trade rules as demanded by unionists and some Brexit hardliners — concerns opponents describe as a “democratic deficit” in the region.
Insiders on both sides also said Brussels had not moved substantially on the ECJ’s role in enforcing the protocol.
Sunak said the biggest democratic deficit was that the power-sharing agreement in Stormont had been suspended. “I’ve been very clear that Northern Ireland deserves their government to be up and running,” he said.
The original deal put a customs border in the Irish Sea in order to avoid the reimposition of a politically sensitive land border on the island of Ireland.
The DUP wants businesses and consumers to have “unfettered” access to goods from Britain and set out seven conditions for its endorsement of the new deal, including that there should be no Irish Sea border and the people of Northern Ireland should have a say in the rules that govern them.
A “green lane” with significantly reduced checks would be created at Irish Sea ports for goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland, while a “red lane” would be created for goods continuing into Ireland and the single market.
The Brexit treaty will be recast to include a new emergency “Stormont brake”, allowing the UK — at the request of 30 members from at least two parties in the Northern Ireland legislative assembly — to oppose updates to new EU goods law in exceptional circumstances.
“With the Stormont brake . . . the assembly and people of Northern Ireland are in control. They have sovereignty, they get to say ‘no’ to rules that are coming down there that they do not like, having an impact on their lives,” Sunak said.
Donaldson welcomed that mechanism but said his party would study the fine print of the deal to decide whether it could “deliver on the areas of concern that we set out in our seven tests”.