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17 February 2023

On the Northern Ireland protocol Rishi Sunak must win over the DUP and his own party

The Prime Minister is in Belfast to meet with the DUP, which has refused to form a government until its concerns are resolved.

By Zoë Grünewald

On 16 February the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, landed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Keir Starmer arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine. Both are flexing their diplomatic muscles. While Sunak may have hoped to keep his visit fairly low-key, Starmer’s trip has been highly publicised, with plenty of handshakes and moody photographs of the leader of the opposition and Ukrainian president deep in conversation. Starmer’s visit is the start of an international charm offensive to show the rest of the world that Labour is the government in waiting and would be a stable ally to Ukraine in the fight against Russian aggression. 

Sunak, meanwhile, is facing a much trickier trip. Today (17 February) he will be putting new protocol proposals to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), while the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, will meet the European Commission in Brussels – a sign that all sides of the deal are being tested. An agreement would end years of stalemate over checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. It is a defining test for Sunak. The DUP, which has refused to form a government at Stormont until its concerns over the protocol are resolved, has made its position very clear. It has set seven “tests” that must be met for the party to accept the deal, including that there must be no border in the Irish Sea and no checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. A senior DUP member, Nigel Dodds, recently said that Northern Ireland has been “colonised” by the EU in a way that is “intolerable for every unionist”. 

Another serious challenge comes from inside the Conservative Party as its Brexiteers will scrutinise every part of any agreement closely. The former Brexit negotiator David Frost has said the protocol was “a huge concession by us”. In an op-ed for the Telegraph, he pleaded: “Prime Minister, don’t sell our democratic birthright for a mess of pottage. If the deal is poor, go back to the Protocol Bill. No deal is still better than a bad one.” The Johnson acolyte and Brexiteer Simon Clarke echoed this: “In the absence of something decisively better, the default must remain enacting our Protocol legislation.” Sunak will no doubt be worried that failure could trigger an intervention from Boris Johnson, who enjoys the privileged position of being the prime minister who Got Brexit Done.

If Sunak can find a workable deal, he will have achieved a huge political and diplomatic feat. A recent poll showed Labour had a marginal lead on the Conservatives for managing Brexit. A success could bolster Sunak’s approval ratings both in and out of his party.

But with many invested and conflicting parties before him, Sunak could face interventions from any number of powerful critics, even if the deal makes it to Monday. No pressure.

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