Rishi Sunak insisted that his new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland addressed the concerns of unionists despite the “small and limited” role for European Union law and its court.
The Prime Minister, who was visiting Northern Ireland to sell the deal secured with the European Union, said he believed “hand on heart” that it addressed the concerns expressed about the current post-Brexit trading arrangements which triggered the collapse of powersharing in Stormont.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which brought down the Northern Ireland executive over the measures, is considering its response to the new Windsor Framework deal.
Barriers on trade
The framework removes the Northern Ireland Protocol’s barriers on trade across the Irish Sea and hands a “veto” to politicians in Stormont on EU law – a set of concessions from Brussels that went further than some expected.
But it still includes a role for the European Court of Justice, with the DUP and Tory backbenchers set to study the details of the complex set of arrangements in the coming days.
Mr Sunak told BBC Radio 4’s Today that the role of EU law was for single market measures aimed at avoiding the need for a hard border with Ireland.
“In practical terms, something that is important to people in Northern Ireland is not having a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, I think that’s important to everybody in fact, but also it’s important for businesses to have access to the EU single market,” he said.
“As long as the people of Northern Ireland consent to that arrangement, then that’s why there is a small and limited role for EU law in Northern Ireland – what we are talking about is less than 3 per cent of EU laws that apply in Northern Ireland and they apply very specifically for the purpose that I just mentioned.”
The Stormont brake means that “if there’s a new law that’s going to significantly impact people’s lives coming from the EU, they will be able to block it”.
Mr Sunak also said that border posts for checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea were mainly aimed at consignments destined for Ireland and the EU – the so-called “red lane”.
“The border posts are there very specifically for the red lane. Because as part of having a green lane, where goods flow freely within our UK internal market, if goods are actually going to the Republic of Ireland, ie going into the EU, well, that’s not our country and it’s entirely reasonable, that we have checks for those types of goods.
“And we also check when we suspect criminality or smuggling. And that’s something that the Government’s always said that it would do and has been long-standing practice, actually.”
In the green channel, for goods remaining in the UK, “there won’t be routine checks” but “there will be checks where we suspect criminality or smuggling”.
He said it was important to restore powersharing and to provide “stability” in Northern Ireland following the shooting last week of an off-duty police officer in Omagh.
Police are investigating an unverified claim by a dissident republican group, the New IRA, that they carried out the attack which left Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell fighting for his life.
“People in Northern Ireland need and deserve their government to be up and running. That is what democracy is about,” he said.
“Stability in Northern Ireland is really important and it (the shooting) is a reminder of that.”
Stability in Northern Ireland
As well as his trip to Northern Ireland, Mr Sunak will continue efforts to win over Tory Eurosceptics and his predecessor Boris Johnson, who is yet to give a verdict on the new deal which replaces the Northern Ireland Protocol he signed.
Mr Sunak indicated he had discussed the deal with Mr Johnson – “of course I speak to the former prime minister” – and is expected to address Tory MPs at a private meeting in Westminster later.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted his party was acting in a reasonable way as it considered its response to the framework.
“We’re reasonable people but we want to ensure that what the Prime Minister has said is matched by what is actually in the agreement itself, can it deliver on the areas of concern that we set out in our seven tests?” he told Today.
Sir Jeffrey said Northern Ireland should have unfettered access to the GB market, and if changes to EU law were to impact that, “then it is right that Stormont has a brake and that we’re able to ultimately veto any new such law”.
He insisted the brake would not be used for “trivial reasons”.
“We want to do it in circumstances where a change to law would impact on our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom, and that certainly is no trivial matter,” he added.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, one of the architects of the deal, said it would be “hugely disappointing” if the DUP does not return to the Stormont powersharing executive.
“I think they will know that I have been very, very focused on the concerns they have expressed on behalf of their community,” he told Sky News.
“They will have real authority when it comes to the Stormont brake.
“If they don’t re-enter the powersharing executive, that will be hugely disappointing. It won’t be good news for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Writing in the Telegraph, chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee Sir Graham Brady said: “The so-called ‘Windsor Framework’ won’t be perfect but it looks like a massive step forward.”
Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) are to meet on Tuesday and will convene MP Sir Bill Cash’s so-called “star chamber” of lawyers to scrutinise the deal before deciding whether to back it.
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