By: Kimberly Rodrigues
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday (28) urged pro-UK politicians in Northern Ireland to grab the economic “prize” on offer after he secured a breakthrough reform deal with the European Union.
On a visit to the tense province, Sunak said he was “over the moon” at clinching the pact with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (27).
Following their meeting in the royal town of Windsor, near London, both leaders proclaimed a “new chapter” in relations after years of Brexit tensions.
The deal follows more than a year of talks over the “Northern Ireland Protocol”, which has unsettled the province 25 years on from a historic peace agreement that ended three decades of armed conflict.
Agreed in 2020 as part of Britain’s EU divorce, the protocol kept Northern Ireland in the European single market for physical goods and subject to different customs rules than the rest of the United Kingdom, angering pro-UK unionists there and eurosceptics in London.
The new “Windsor Framework” has been generally well received, but it has yet to secure the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s largest pro-UK political force.
The DUP has been refusing to rejoin a power-sharing government in Belfast for a year, mainly in protest at the protocol, which it said cut Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK.
Hitting the brake
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson insists the party will take its time to assess whether the agreement meets its tests for returning to the Stormont assembly — and Sunak stressed he was willing to be patient.
“People need the time to engage with it, understand it, ask the questions,” he told reporters during a visit to a Coca-Cola plant in Lisburn.
Sunak told an audience of invited guests that his deal would create “the world’s most exciting economic zone” with access to both EU and UK markets.
“Nobody else has that. No one. Only you guys: only here, and that is the prize,” he said.
The comments prompted Scotland’s pro-independence, anti-Brexit leader Nicola Sturgeon to question why the rest of the UK could not benefit from such close ties with the EU’s single market.
The Windsor Framework creates a “green”, largely check-free lane for goods coming from the rest of the UK that are meant to stay in Northern Ireland, without heading into the EU’s single market via Ireland.
Sunak’s biggest breakthrough was getting von der Leyen to agree to the “Stormont brake”, which empowers the Northern Ireland assembly to stop any new EU laws from taking effect in the province.
He spoke Tuesday with some leaders in Northern Ireland, including first minister-elect Michelle O’Neill of the pro-Irish party Sinn Fein, but was not reported to have had talks with the DUP.
In Dublin, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald demanded the DUP end its “reckless and damaging boycott of democracy” in light of the UK-EU deal.
But Irish premier Leo Varadkar said it was “reasonable” for the DUP to take its time in considering the deal.
UK-approved food and medicines will be fully available in Northern Ireland under the deal. It will also limit, but not scrap, oversight of the arrangements by the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Several DUP hardliners voiced concerns over the ECJ’s enduring role under the new deal, but Donaldson insisted that his party would “come to a collective decision”.
Sunak, who took power in October, appears to have the backing of most in his own party, though his restive predecessor Boris Johnson has yet to react in public.
Some pro-Brexit Conservatives said they would take their cue from the DUP.
But in a meeting at parliament late Tuesday, Sunak reportedly urged Tory MPs not to create another “Westminster drama”, after years of turmoil since Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
Internationally, French President Emmanuel Macron called it an “important decision” and US counterpart Joe Biden highlighted the economic opportunities that would be “created by this stability and certainty”.
The deal clears the path for a possible Biden visit to Northern Ireland ahead of the 25th anniversary of the US-brokered Good Friday Agreement in April.