Prime minister Rishi Sunak has done a deal with the European Union on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. But has he done enough to get it over the line?
“If the prime minister finds a way to move towards an advanced free trade agreement as hte basis of our relationship, I think we’ll all be delighted to weigh in behind her and give her absolutely all of our support. I think if she doesn’t do that we’re in deeply uncharted waters…”Steve Baker
This is Steve Baker. A hardline Brexiteer who used to lead the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs.
He was a thorn in the side of prime minister Theresa May as she attempted to negotiate a Brexit deal after the 2016 referendum and continued to be a problem for Boris Johnson.
But eventually Boris Johnson did what Theresa May couldn’t. He agreed a deal with the EU.
He promised it would Get Brexit Done and solve the issue with Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but would – exceptionally – remain part of the EU’s single market for goods.
Nobody wanted those goods to be checked on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because of fears it would threaten the peace process that ended years of violence. So Boris Johnson’s deal meant that goods would be checked going from one bit of the UK, Great Britain, to another bit of the UK, Northern Ireland. Here’s Tortoise’s Political Editor Cat Neilan…
“Once the UK left the single market, you have to have a barrier of some kind, either down the Irish Sea or on the island of Ireland, and both of those things go against the Good Friday Agreement.”Cat Neilan
Any border in the Irish sea is unacceptable to unionists – but particularly the DUP, which is the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland and part of the power sharing government with Sinn Fein.
‘This upset the unionists, particularly the DUP, who began to feel very strongly that this was the beginning of Northern Ireland being edged out of the United Kingdom. That is an existential issue for them, and it threatens to destabilise the peace process. This is one of the reasons, uh, why there’s been no Northern Ireland Assembly since February 2022, which makes it a year because the DUP First Minister, Paul Gibbon resigned in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.”Cat Neilan
Boris Johnson had assured the world that any checks would be light touch, but in reality they weren’t…
“In practice, what the creation of border checks in the Irish Sea meant was that some companies stopped exporting from Britain to Northern Ireland because of the hassle. There was more paperwork, it wasn’t cost effective for them to do.”Cat Neilan
This week prime minister Rishi Sunak announced a new deal with the EU that’s designed to fix the part of the original Brexit deal that governs how trade flows between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
They’re calling it The Windsor Agreement…
“I’m pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough.”Rishi Sunak
So has Rishi Sunak found a solution to this complex problem?
“I believe we have found ways to end the uncertainty and challenge for the people of Northern Ireland.”Rishi Sunak
Both the British prime minister and The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen looked triumphant – and a little relieved – as they announced the agreement at Windsor Guildhall
Cat Neilan was watching the press conference:
“It was very well trailed, so there was not a huge amount of surprise when they announced that there would be these new green lanes and red lanes. But they are really important because this is what will free up trade between GB and Northern Ireland.
The items that go into the green lane are items destined for Northern Ireland and they will not have any real checks. The items that are in the red lane are destined to go into the EU and they will have the kind of checks that you would expect.
Perhaps the most important rabbit out of the hat was this mechanism called the Stormont Break which allows members of the Northern Ireland assembly to veto certain EU laws in certain circumstances.”Cat Neilan
But why has this deal been done now?
“He hasn’t had a honeymoon period to speak of since becoming Prime Minister. We are two months out of a set of local elections that most people believe will be really critical in determining his future, whether or not there is a coup. To have all of Fleet Street behind him and the influence that that carries amongst the wider electorate is really important.
Rishi Sunak is not just thinking of narrow politics. He is looking to America specifically. Joe Biden this year is the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Day Agreement, and he will want to have goodwill with the US President around that in time for Joe Biden’s visit.”Cat Neilan
Rishi Sunak and Ursula Von der Leyen might have come to an agreement, but they now need to convince hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party and the DUP to back it.
Here’s Tortoise’s political editor Cat Neilan again:
“The DUP, the Democratic Unionist Party are a very small party in Westminster. There’s only eight MPs but they punch well above their weight and the Conservatives – or a certain wing of the Conservatives – very much look to them for their cues on matters relating to the union.”Cat Neilan
So has Rishi Sunak done enough to convince the DUP that his new deal solves the existing problems?
“The DUP and other interested parties will be going through the texts line by line. There are several pages; it will take some time, and I have already seen some sort of legal experts complaining that perhaps it’s not quite as straightforward as it seems.”Cat Neilan
But the DUP isn’t the only group the prime minister needs to keep happy:
“What we heard again and again from Conservative MPs, particularly those in the ERG (That’s the European Research group of Brexiters,) was that they would be guided by their DUP colleagues. Many of them were saying effectively that if it didn’t satisfy the DUP, the deal was pointless. So although the DUP only has eight MPs out of 650, they are really the ones who wield the power at this stage.”Cat Neilan
Steve Baker is now a minister in Rishi Sunak’s government and it was thought that he might resign over this new deal but he hasn’t.
Instead the man who cultivated an image as a Brexit hardman has backed it…
“I think it’s a really historic moment., I think this is capable of bringing this awful rollercoaster round to an end… If the DUP are satisfied with it.”Steve Baker
So could this mean Brexit is finally done?
“I think it’s safe to say that Brexit is not done. We will still be talking about it, and at the very least, there is a regular set of review points. I think the first one is 2027.”Cat Neilan
This episode was written and mixed by Rebecca Moore.