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Sunak Must Sell N. Ireland Brexit Deal to DUP and Tories

(Bloomberg) -- As UK and EU negotiators prepare to unveil a provisional post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must walk a political tightrope to sell it to the region’s unionists and members of his own ruling Conservatives.

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The government will try to convince the Democratic Unionist Party that the agreement meets their concerns about Northern Ireland’s role in the UK in the coming weeks, people familiar with the matter said. The DUP has blocked the formation of the region’s government for a year in protest at the so-called Protocol, the part of the Brexit agreement covering its trade.

Though officials are close to proposing an agreement at technical level — as reported last week by Bloomberg — how Sunak sells it to the DUP and to their Tory allies is crucial, because any deal is likely to become redundant without their endorsement.

Read More: hy Northern Ireland Keeps the UK and Europe at Odds: QuickTake

If Sunak can prevent a political fall-out, it could help put his administration back on track after a first 100 days in office clouded by public sector strikes, internal pressure to cut taxes and a string of Tory scandals.

“The implementation of the protocol is having an impact for communities in Northern Ireland,” Sunak told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “That’s why it needs to be addressed and that’s what we are attempting to do through constructive dialog.”

Secrecy

The outline agreement is shrouded in secrecy, with only a few people on each of the UK and EU sides fully across the details. Sunak has been personally briefed on the state of play, but some senior British ministers have been cut out of the loop, the people said.

UK and EU Nearing Provisional Brexit Deal in N. Ireland Talks

Publicly, both the UK and EU will continue to insist talks are ongoing and no deal has been reached, while politicians on both sides devise a political strategy to win support, they added. The people all requested anonymity discussing a sensitive matter that’s yet to reach a public resolution.

“No deal has been agreed,” Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain said on Wednesday. “There is still lots of work to do on all areas with significant gaps remaining between the UK and EU positions.”

One of the people said that Downing Street is extremely nervous about the political situation and is trying to strike a balance between preventing a breakdown in trade relations with the EU and satisfying the demands of the unionists and Tory Brexiteers.

DUP Stance

The government knows that if it loses the support of the DUP and significant numbers of Brexiteer Tory MPs, Sunak’s premiership could come under threat, the person added. But the premier is also determined to avoid a no-deal scenario that could lead to a trade war with the EU at a time when the UK economy simply cannot afford it, they said.

Members of the DUP are in regular conversation with Brexit purists in the Tory Party’s European Research Group, two people said. While it’s not a formal relationship, their positions are more or less indistinguishable, raising the prospect of co-ordinated political opposition to an agreement.

The ERG met government ministers to discuss progress this week but have been told discussions are ongoing and that nothing is concluded. The group is preparing to call on its so-called “star chamber” of five legal advisers to examine the details of any proposal, they said.

The lawyers played a key role in deciding the fortunes of previous Brexit agreements struck by former prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson. In 2019, they concluded May’s deal did not meet their demands, leading Leave-voting MPs to reject it in the Commons, and ultimately bringing about her resignation. In 2020, the chamber backed the Johnson deal that they now reject and want altered.

European Courts

“This won’t be resolved on technical issues — it will be resolved on political and constitutional issues and its extraordinarily unlikely we will approve of it if not,” said David Jones, Deputy Chairman of the ERG.

Any proposal that allows the European Court of Justice to retain jurisdiction in Northern Ireland would be unacceptable, two ERG MPs said. They’re concerned that a deal will focus on greater facilitation of goods traveling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, rather than addressing their constitutional concerns.

The UK is exploring a possible compromise over the role of the ECJ, which includes supplementing it with an independent arbitration panel, Bloomberg reported earlier this month.

Sunak has won the backing of opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer for any deal. But even though the ERG isn’t the force it once was, and former ringmaster Steve Baker is now a minister in the Northern Ireland office, the premier will be reluctant to risk exacerbating unrest in his own fractious party by accepting a deal that upsets them.

All eyes remain on the DUP — whose stance will influence the ERG. A government official insisted that an agreement would meet the party’s stated seven tests. DUP MP Ian Paisley said Wednesday that they “continue to be our yardstick for measuring any deal between the EU and UK.”

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson and Joe Mayes.

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