Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party on Monday gave a guarded initial response to the Brexit deal struck by Rishi Sunak with the EU on revised trading arrangements for the region, saying “key issues of concern” remained.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was concerned that EU rules would still apply in Northern Ireland under the prime minister’s agreement.
While accepting “significant progress” had been made in some areas, Donaldson added: “The key issue is why is EU law being applied and what is the purpose of that?”
The DUP’s reaction to the proposed overhaul of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol will be a key test for Sunak’s bid to restore the region’s devolved government.
The DUP has boycotted the power-sharing assembly and executive at Stormont since last May to press for sweeping changes to the protocol.
Donaldson said his party would study the legal text of Sunak’s deal carefully and would not be rushed into a verdict. Ian Paisley Jr, a DUP MP, told the BBC the agreement “does not cut the mustard”.
Donaldson said he wanted to understand what Stormont could do if there were any changes to EU rules on goods trade that affected Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market.
Under Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal that includes the Northern Ireland protocol, the region stayed in the EU single market for goods.
Sunak’s deal includes a mechanism that could give Stormont the right to apply a “brake” on updated EU rules on goods, with the UK able to oppose them, in exceptional circumstances.
Donaldson said that of the £77bn in goods produced in Northern Ireland every year, £65bn were traded within the UK and he needed clarity on which rules would apply and to ensure there were no barriers within the UK internal market.
“It really is the £65bn question because . . . that’s the extent of trade that we do with the rest of the UK,” he added.
Donaldson said: “We will want to continue engaging with the prime minister and his team to examine what these new arrangements will mean . . how they will work in practice.
“And then yes of course there may need to be further engagement with the EU.”
Sunak said all parties would be given time and space to digest the deal, as he tries to pave the way for parliamentary approval of his agreement.
Donaldson will consult the DUP’s other 11 officers and then the wider 100-strong party executive. Experts said he could seek to delay his final verdict on Sunak’s deal until after council elections on May 18.
He can claim that he has successfully pushed the EU into accepting changes to the protocol that go beyond anything Brussels initially said was possible.
But hardliners in his party want no EU laws to apply in Northern Ireland at all, and no oversight of the trading arrangements by the European Court of Justice. Despite the changes agreed by Sunak and von der Leyen, the ECJ retains a role.
Whether Sunak’s agreement will secure the restoration of Stormont was unclear.
Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist communities have to share power under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the region’s three decades-long conflict.
The run-up to the 25th anniversary of the agreement in April has already been marred by the attempted murder last week of an off-duty police officer. The attack has been claimed by dissident republican group the New IRA.
Opinion polls show a majority of DUP voters do not want their party to return to the Stormont assembly and executive unless the protocol is either removed or substantially changed.
“The DUP leadership will need to enable their supporters not to think they’re immediately being sold out,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast.
Despite the political uncertainty, business leaders were encouraged by Sunak’s deal.
“I’d be surprised if it’s completely satisfactory but it should be capable of improvement over time,” said Archie Norman, chair of retailer Marks and Spencer, who has been highly critical of the protocol.
Stuart Rose, chair of Asda, the supermarket, hailed the deal as a pragmatic solution. “Chapeau to the prime minister,” he added. “The grown-ups are back in the room.”