DUP leader says Britain and EU not anywhere close to protocol deal

Jeffrey Donaldson plays down hopes as Tory MP says arrangement having ‘colonising’ effect in Northern Ireland

The Democratic Unionist party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has said the UK and EU are not “anywhere close to a deal” on the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.

At the same time the deputy head of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has renewed calls for the end of EU law applying in Northern Ireland, saying it was a “bizarre and exceptional” situation with a “colonising” effect.

David Jones, the MP for Clwyd West and deputy of the European Research Group, said it was time to back out of the “unwise arrangement” sealed by Boris Johnson in 2019.

His remarks, along with the continuing opposition by the DUP to the protocol, are a sign that Rishi Sunak may yet have to face down critics if he is to strike a deal with Brussels.

Donaldson told BBC’s Good Morning Ulster: “At the moment, while some progress has been made on some technical issues, there are major political issues in those negotiations that have not yet been addressed.

“I don’t think we are anywhere close to a deal.”

His comments come just a day after the first roundtable talks between the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and local parties were left in disarray after Sinn Féin and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) withdrew from the meeting in a shambolic mix-up over invitations.

Donaldson added: “That was clear yesterday from James Cleverly’s report to the political parties that we aren’t close to a deal at this stage. There is still a lot of ground to be covered before we get to that point.”

The Northern Ireland political parties are due to meet Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, on Thursday and the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, is due to meet the Irish foreign minister, Micheál Martin, as pressure mounts to find the “contours of a deal” in the coming weeks.

At the same time the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is travelling to Belfast for talks with the parties.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jones said it was time to back out of a flawed and “elaborate arrangement for a problem that everyone agrees is not a very big one, which is souring relations between the UK, the EU and the USA”.

The ERG wants the protocol scrapped but Jones says at the moment its two main concerns are the role of the European court of justice (ECJ) and the fact that EU law automatically applies in certain areas in Northern Ireland.

Jones claimed that since 2021, when Brexit came into force, Northern Ireland had “absorbed more than 400 pieces of EU legislation” not applying in the rest of the country because of the protocol, a matter that is as concerning to the ERG as the role of the ECJ.

“It is bizarre and exceptional that it is not subject to the same legal system as the rest of the country. It has got to be resolved. It is not working.

“If you enter an unwise arrangement it should not be the case you should be expected to be stuck with it forever, particularly when it is causing such damage,” he added.

While the ostensible intention of the protocol was to protect the single market and the peace process in Ireland, it has meant part of the UK is being “colonised” by the EU, he said.

He believes this constitutional matter can be solved by “putting Northern Ireland under a formal footing in the trade and cooperation agreement” with new chapters on Northern Ireland trading arrangements, something suggested in an internal paper by the Northern Ireland minister, Steve Baker, in November.


Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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