Rishi Sunak wants to defy Tory and push ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol treaty

Rishi Sunak is preparing to face his Conservative critics and push forward reforms to post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, with allies saying the vast majority of Tory MPs just want to solve the problem.

Britain’s Prime Minister spoke to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday in a new attempt to reach an agreement, amid speculation it could be announced very soon.

EU officials said the call was “positive”, while UK officials said “positive breakthroughs” had been secured. Officials close to the talks said Sunak could even reach an agreement over the weekend or on Monday.

Downing Street has declined to comment on the timetables, but a key Sunak ally said: “We know almost 300 of our MPs just want to get this done – they’ve had enough.”

Downing Street is watching with concern some 60 Tory MPs, out of a total of 355, who have expressed concern that the deal with Brussels is taking shape.

Much depends on whether the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland responds positively to Sunak’s deal – or at least doesn’t reject it outright. Party executives estimate at least 30 potential Tory rebels could back the deal with DUP coverage.

Sunak wants to make last-minute changes to the text of an agreement to try to win over the DUP and convince them to return to the Stormont power-sharing executive.

Downing Street said talks with the EU had “intensified over the last week and good progress had been made with some positive breakthroughs”.

Tory MPs were put on a three-line whip to attend Parliament on Monday, despite party sources insisting it was standard procedure on a busy legislature day in Parliament. According to Tory officials, Cabinet ministers could be briefed over the weekend.

Sunak does not have to call a vote in the House of Commons on reforms to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, but can still choose to hold one.

In any case, he wants Tory MPs to show their strength and back an agreement that aims to improve the situation in Northern Ireland and significantly improve Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Sunak and von der Leyen are discussing a political statement to implement the protocol, which will reduce border controls, increase democratic scrutiny and limit the role of the European Court of Justice.

A ‘green lane’ would be established in Irish Sea ports with minimal controls for goods traveling from the UK to Northern Ireland if they are to remain in the region. A ‘red lane’ would be established for goods moving into the Republic of Ireland and the internal market.

Control over issues such as VAT and state aid would be exercised from London, not Brussels. Joint committees would oversee the new dispute resolution arrangements.

Ever since Sunak submitted the framework agreement to the DUP last week, party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been making new demands. He says the deal should include changes to the treaty, not just a political statement.

Donaldson also wants Northern Ireland companies to be allowed to produce goods to UK standards, rather than EU rules, for export to the UK market. According to the protocol, the region is part of the EU’s internal market for goods.

James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, said on Friday that the UK government’s priority is winning the DUP, although Donaldson’s party has said it will need time to consider the legal details of any deal.

“If we hopefully get these issues resolved, I hope the DUP will realize that we have addressed their concerns,” Cleverly told Times Radio. “Until we address these concerns, we will not sign the deal.”

Among the Tory MPs likely to cause problems for Sunak is Johnson, who wants to push legislation that would unilaterally scrap the protocol.

Northern Ireland politicians were due to attend a rally in Omagh on Saturday where a senior police officer was shot and critically injured on Wednesday night. The attack by suspected dissident Republicans was not believed to be linked to the protocol, but it stunned the region and revived chilling memories of their three-decade conflict.

A DUP insider said: “If we get this wrong we will be delivering the next generation to another division and I very much doubt if this gets wrong that the Northern Ireland assembly will ever be revived or not.”

https://www.ft.com/content/3379c9fc-31f2-4df6-87b8-9038b3f5da4d Rishi Sunak wants to defy Tory and push ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol treaty

Brian Ashcraft

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