Northern Ireland protocol deal: key political hurdles for Rishi Sunak

Despite prospect of breakthrough pitfalls remain, from getting DUP onside to appeasing Tory hardliners

Rishi Sunak is embarking on the highest-stakes talks of his premiership as he tries to tie up a deal on post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland that satisfies leaders there and across Europe, as well as the hardliners in his own party.

But despite the prospect of a breakthrough between Downing Street and Brussels, there are still plenty of potential pitfalls. These are the key political hurdles the prime minister will have to clear if he wants to finally “get Brexit done”, rated by difficulty.

Get the backing of the DUP

A row over the protocol signed off by Boris Johnson has left Northern Ireland without a functioning executive for a year. The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has refused to re-enter power-sharing until the UK government scraps the protocol. It argues Northern Ireland has been “abandoned to the EU” given the measures designed to prevent a hard border on the island that resulted in customs checks being instituted on some goods from Great Britain.

The DUP has insisted the government must meet seven tests to any deal, including the elimination of the application of EU law in Northern Ireland, the bedrock of the protocol. Unless Sunak abandons the protocol, this condition will not be met. Other key concerns he needs to address centre on trade friction within the UK internal market – given some checks and controls may persist, even if they are reduced under a new red and green lanes system operating at ports for goods entering Northern Ireland from GB.

Unlocking DUP support will be crucial for getting Stormont functioning again and boosting relations with the US president, Joe Biden, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.

Some believe the DUP will oppose the deal for now but change tack after the local elections in May when it has spent the political capital of its anti-protocol policy and faces growing demands from voters over health, the cost of living crisis and other bread and butter issues. Difficulty rating: 5/5

Ensure buy-in from Tory MPs

A thorn in the side of multiple prime ministers has been the European Research Group (ERG) – a caucus of purist Brexiters. Sunak could put his agreement to a vote in parliament to get it rubber-stamped, but Labour has provisionally offered its support to ensure success, meaning the result is likely to be a foregone conclusion. However, ministers fear that relying on opposition votes looks weak and it only takes 40 dissenting Conservatives to wipe out the government’s majority.

Getting the ERG onside, therefore, is crucial given the precariousness of party unity. Waiting in the wings is Johnson, who has not yet given his verdict on changes to the protocol and could cause Sunak significant political headaches with any criticism. Issues concerning sovereignty and the role of the European court of justice are likely to be greatest among his backbenchers. Difficulty rating: 4/5

Making peace with the EU27

There is no need for ratification by the 27 EU countries, because what is being negotiated is the implementation of a deal that has already being ratified. The UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly’s meeting with member state diplomats and the chief Brussels negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, will allow both sides to discuss the concessions offered by the other. Ultimately, negotiators from both sides believe pragmatism and helping break the post-Brexit deadlock is in both the EU’s and UK’s interests and will prove a high enough prize.

The EU also wants to move away from Brexit – Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, is keen to ensure it remains a Jean-Claude Juncker legacy issue and forge a new security relationship with the UK amid the Ukraine war. Difficulty rating: 2/5


Aubrey Allegretti Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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