London: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was in Northern Ireland on Tuesday to sell his new deal with the European Union to ease post-Brexit trade, a measure he hopes will finally break the political deadlock in the province.
Sunak is trying to secure the backing of all sides in Northern Ireland so he can reset relations with the EU - and the United States - without angering lawmakers in his own party and in Belfast who are most wedded to Brexit.
His deal seeks to resolve the tensions caused by the Northern Ireland protocol, a complex agreement which set the trading rules for the British-governed region that London agreed before it left the EU in 2020, but now says are unworkable.
In order to keep open the politically-sensitive border with EU-member Ireland, Northern Ireland remained in the EU single market for goods, raising the prospect it would slowly diverge from the rest of the United Kingdom, fuelling fears in unionist communities.
Sunak said his agreement, the Windsor Framework, would strengthen the union, scrap rules that affected everything from the import of sausages to sandwiches, and give lawmakers on the ground a greater say over the rules and regulations they take from Brussels.
“That’s an enormously, incredibly, powerful achievement.
And I hope people can see that,” he told BBC Radio.
The success of the deal 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 deal which mostly ended three decades of sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his first reading of the deal suggested it would give the Stormont regional assembly the power to reject EU rules it did not want, providing some reassurance on their key concern of sovereignty.
But the party is likely to take time before it comes to a conclusion, while members of the European Research Group, which brings together pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, will work with lawyers to examine the details before giving a verdict.
Asked if he would impose the new rules on Northern Ireland without the backing of the DUP, Sunak said it was not about “any one political party”.
“This is about what’s best for the people and communities and businesses of Northern Ireland and this agreement will make a hugely positive difference to them,” he said.
The move is a high risk gamble from Sunak, just four months into the job. Most British newspapers lauded his achievement in getting the EU to soften its stance, while saying success would only come from the resumption of the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland.
A victory would strengthen Sunak’s hold over his Conservative Party and enable him to move past the thorniest 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.
It could also lead to deeper cooperation between Britain and the EU in other areas such as scientific research, the regulation of financial services and the movement of small boats carrying migrants in the channel.
Were he to fail, he risks a rebellion from the eurosceptic wing of his party, reviving the ideological divisions that have at times paralysed the government since the vote to leave the EU in 2016.
Officials in London and Belfast say Sunak was motivated to act before the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which could entail a visit from US President Joe Biden.
Biden welcomed the agreement on Monday, while his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, hailed the “opportunity, certainty, and stability brought about by the agreement”.
British newspapers, including those which backed a harder line against Brussels, said Sunak had chosen to prioritise friendlier relations with the EU, as opposed to his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson who took a more combative approach.