Rishi strikes new Northern Ireland Brexit deal after crunch talks

Rishi Sunak has struck a new Brexit deal with Northern Ireland with a view to completely overhauling trade rules, according to Government sources.

No.10 said the Prime Minister met with the European Commission president,  Ursula von der Leyen, in the UK for ‘final talks’ at lunchtime today.

According to the BBC, a deal was struck today, and a senior government official said: ‘An agreement has been reached. The deal is done.’

The European Commission president will go on to have tea with the King at Windsor Castle despite criticisms that the meeting would drag Charles into the politically contentious deal.

Mr Sunak hopes the deal will win the approval of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) so powersharing can be restored in Northern Ireland to get Stormont back up and running.

DUP support would also be key in convincing Conservative Brexiteers to back the deal as pressure mounted on the Prime Minister to give MPs a Commons vote.

Agreed in 2020 as part of Britain’s divorce from the EU, the contentious pact kept the province in the European single market and subject to different trade rules than the rest of the UK.

However, staunch opposition to the protocol from the pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland, who argue it threatens the province’s place within the UK, has led to the collapse of devolved power-sharing there.

That prompted the UK government to threaten a unilateral overhaul of the protocol unless the EU agreed to wholesale changes, souring diplomatic relations and risking a wider trade war.

Talks between London and Brussels aimed at resolving the problems with the protocol dragged on through last year – and two changes of prime minister in the UK.

Now, after months of what Downing Street called ‘intensive negotiations’ since Sunak took power in October, a deal appears to have been struck.

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‘Positive, constructive progress has been made,’ his office said in a statement late Sunday.

‘The prime minister wants to ensure that any deal fixes the practical problems on the ground, ensures trade flows freely within the whole of the UK, safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and returns sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland.’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the task now facing the Prime Minister was to sell the protocol deal to his own Tory MPs.

Sir Keir said that if he was in No 10 he would ‘restore trust’ between the UK and European Union.

‘I’m not sure he has achieved the objective of getting the DUP back into power-sharing, which is the fundamental point of it,’ he told ITV.

Mr Rees-Mogg said it would be a mistake for Ms von der Leyen to meet the King before MPs approve the deal, following anger at suggestions it could have been called the ‘Windsor Agreement’.

Downing Street has not committed to giving the Commons a vote on the final arrangements but Mr Sunak would come under extraordinary pressure if he refuses.

Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen will then set out the deal to voters in a joint press conference before the Prime Minister makes a statement to MPs in the Commons.

The protocol, signed by Mr Johnson as PM in 2020, was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.

Northern Ireland continues to follow EU rules on goods to prevent checks being needed when crossing into the Republic.

But the trade barriers created between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has angered Unionists.

The DUP collapsed powersharing in Stormont last year in protest at its impact, leaving Northern Ireland without an executive or an assembly.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has issued seven tests that Mr Sunak’s new pact will have to meet in order to win the party’s backing.

Chief among them is addressing what he calls the ‘democratic deficit’ of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.

No 10 officials said Mr Sunak would be entering into the talks with Ms von der Leyen looking to ‘return sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland’.

‘The Prime Minister wants to ensure any deal fixes the practical problems on the ground, ensures trade flows freely within the whole of the UK, safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and returns sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland,’ Downing Street officials said.

Ms von der Leyen had been due to travel to Britain on Saturday to hold talks with Mr Sunak, as well as reportedly meet the King at Windsor Castle for tea, but the plans were scrapped.

DUP chief whip Sammy Wilson said the move would have been ‘dragging the King into a hugely controversial political issue’.

The deal is expected to include check-free lanes for goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said the reduction in trade red tape would lead to a ‘substantial scaling back’ of the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

But he refused on Sunday to rule out the court having a say on future legal cases, which could prove to be a flashpoint for DUP resistance.

If Mr Sunak does allow a Commons vote, he is likely to win because Labour has agreed to support it. But he would want to win without relying on Opposition votes.

Mr Sunak ‘wants to ensure any deal fixes practical problems on the ground, ensures trade flows freely within the UK, safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and returns sovereignty’ to it, his spokesman said last night.

Deputy PM Dominic Raab had earlier said the UK and EU were ‘on the cusp’ of agreeing how to tweak the protocol – brought in by Boris Johnson in 2020 to avoid a hard border with Ireland.

A new deal could see different customs checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from inside the UK if they were destined for Ireland – still part of the EU.

‘I think there is real progress,’ Mr Raab told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday.

Later, he went on to tell the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: ‘If we can get this over the line – we’re on the cusp, we’ve made great progress, we’re not there yet – this would be a really important deal.’

Mr Raab said there had been a ‘paradigm shift’ in the approach from Brussels, hinting at changes on customs checks as well as dealing with Unionist concerns.

Mr Sunak said at the weekend he was ‘giving it everything’ to finalise a deal that kept hardline Brexiteers and unionists on side.

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