Senior sources in Dublin and Brussels who have been briefed on the progress of the talks between the European Union and the UK were quick to play down reports on Wednesday morning that the two sides had agreed a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol. “Unhelpful”, “incorrect”, “premature” – and other, less printable descriptions – were readily supplied by senior officials.
Talks have been going on for months between the two sides as they attempt to agree changes to the way the protocol operates that overcome unionist objections to the current regime but still satisfy EU requirements to protect the single market.
If the DUP agrees the deal, it is hoped that this would enable the powersharing institutions – currently being boycotted by the DUP and therefore in cold storage – to be revived, restoring self-government to Northern Ireland. The hope is that this can be achieved in the coming weeks, which would clear the way for the powersharing institutions at Stormont to be up and running again by the time of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement in early April.
Both sides have said publicly that progress is being made in the talks, and it is clear that the advent of the Rishi Sunak government in London has transformed the atmosphere between Brussels and London. The EU side has acknowledged a new realism from the UK side, while the British – having dropped an earlier demand that the EU reframe its negotiating mandate – believe that their proposals for smoothing the protocol’s requirements, such as a system of red-green channels and so on, can defuse much of the anxiety. The EU says a new agreement could remove the need for the vast majority of checks.
But there are remain difficulties, not least the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in overseeing the application of the protocol. This offends some unionists and the hyper-sovereigntist wing of the Conservative party. But the EU position that the oversight of EU rules is a matter for the EU courts is very unlikely to budge. And any deal is going to maintain some EU rules in the North because that is the entire basis of the protocol in the first place. It is also, incidentally, what makes possible the opportunity for the North to have access to both the EU single market and the UK market, one of the things that makes Northern businesses so keen to have a deal concluded.
Wednesday morning’s reports suggested that the problem of the ECJ’s role had been overcome by an agreement that its only role would be when the Northern Ireland courts referred an issue to the ECJ. Dublin says this isn’t the case. A senior Brussels source says: “I don’t even understand it.” A senior British source agrees that reports of a deal being concluded are seriously overcooked.
But the biggest uncertainty is not actually whether a deal can be agreed. All sides say that, while they’re not there yet, a deal is possible. The uncertainty is twofold: can Sunak sell an deal to the Eurosceptic wing? And even if he does, can he sell it to the DUP?
The signs were mixed: reports from London suggested that the European Research Group of Conservative Eurosceptic hardliners and the DUP would reject a deal along the lines suggested. But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson clearly didn’t rule out the deal on Wednesday morning when reports first surfaced, tweeting a link to the piece and saying that any agreement had to “reinstate NI’s place in the UK internal market and respect our constitutional position”.
You can be sure that Sunak’s view of any deal will be that it does just that. But what will the benches behind him in the House of Commons think? What will the DUP, sitting across the aisle and watching him fiercely, think?