UK PM Sunak strikes deal with EU over Northern Ireland – source

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hold a news conference at Windsor Guildhall, Britain, February 27, 2023. Photographer Dan Kitwood/Reuters

By Reuters

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has struck a new deal on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, risking a clash with members of his Conservative Party in the hope he can secure a better relationship with the European Union.

A government source said Sunak had agreed the terms with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as they met at a hotel west of London.

The issue has been one of the most contentious regarding Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2020.

Northern Ireland, a British province, had an one border with Ireland, an EU member. Any return to a hard border could have jeopardised the 1998 peace deal which mostly ended three decades of sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland.

For Sunak, the agreement also marks a high-risk strategy just just four months after he took office. He is looking to secure a compromise and improve relations with Brussels – and the United States – without sufficiently angering the wing of his party most wedded to Brexit.

Sunak’s spokesman had earlier told reporters the two sides were in “final talks and significant progress has been made over a number of weeks and months”.

It remains to be seen whether it will go far enough to end political deadlock in Northern Ireland and satisfy critics in Britain and the province.

The new agreement is expected to ease physical checks on goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland, and give its lawmakers a say over the EU rules it has to implement under the complicated terms of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

London could also set some tax and state aid rules.

Its success is likely to hinge on whether it convinces the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to end its boycott of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements. These were central to the 1998 peace agreement.


DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking before news of an agreement emerged, said they would take time to look at the details before deciding whether to accept it.

The European Research Group, which brings together pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, have also said they will study the details before giving their verdict, a process that could take days.

Victory would strengthen Sunak’s hold over his Conservative Party and enable him to move past the most contentious issue on his agenda as he seeks to catch up with the opposition Labour Party, now well ahead in opinion polls, before a national election expected in 2024.

Were he to fail, he would probably face a rebellion from the Eurosceptic wing of his party, reviving the deep ideological divisions that have at times paralysed the government since the vote to leave the EU in 2016.

Sunak could have left the standoff unresolved, but officials in London and Belfast say he has been motivated to act ahead of the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which could entail a visit from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Biden, who often speaks with pride of his Irish roots, has expressed concern about the stand-off in the province.

Sunak is hoping that a successful outcome will improve cooperation with the EU in areas beyond Northern Ireland, including the regulation of financial services, scientific research and help to stem an influx of migrants in small boats across the Channel.

As part of its exit agreement, Britain signed an accord with Brussels known as the Northern Ireland protocol to avoid imposing politically contentious checks along the 500-km (310-mile) land border with Ireland.

But the protocol effectively created a border for some goods moving from Britain because it kept Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods. That also left Northern Ireland subject to some EU rules even though it was not a member of the bloc.

Perceptions that the protocol erodes Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom have caused anger among many in unionist communities.