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Sunak Sells

Rishi Sunak has travelled to Belfast to “sell” his agreement with the European Union on the Irish Protocol to the Unionists. After dispatching Boris Johnson and the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, the premier is trying to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to come out of its isolation and join the rest of the political forces.

“The agreement is a huge step forward that will make a positive difference in Northern Ireland,” Sunak told BBC radio on his arrival in Belfast, “This is above political divisions, although I understand that the parties need time and space”. Sunak asserted that Northern Ireland is in a “unique and privileged” position of being simultaneously within the UK and integrated into the EU single market.

“Nobody else is in this position, it’s just you here and that’s the prize,” Sunak declared as he passed through Belfast, “I can tell you that when I travel the world, businesspeople say to me, “That’s interesting”. This doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It’s like we are economically in the most exciting part of the world.”

His comments provoked an uproar in London, with Labour’s Stela Creasy leading the way: “The premier is extolling the benefits to Northern Ireland of being in the single market, while denying those same benefits to businesses in the rest of the country. Need we remind ourselves of the economic impact Brexit has caused?” A Downing Street spokesman was forced to qualify Sunak’s words and highlight “the benefits of Brexit”, such as changes to environmental laws and tax policy, and recall Northern Ireland’s “unique position” because of the need to avoid a return to a hard border on the island to preserve the peace process.”

Unionist Concerns

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson acknowledged at the outset that the Windsor agreement – sealed on Monday with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – “goes some way” towards addressing the concerns expressed by his party, but that “some issues” remain on the table. Among its seven proposals for a “rewrite” of the Irish Protocol, the DUP stressed the exclusion of the EU Court of Justice, which will ultimately have a “limited” role as a “last resort” in the event of disputes. The Unionists’ main demand was in any case the abolition of what they considered to be an “internal customs” in the Irish Sea, achieved by the elimination of almost all controls and the creation of a “green channel” for the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.

With his trip to Belfast, Sunak is trying not only to get the DUP to accept his deal with the EU but also to finally agree to form a unity government with Sinn Féin and end the decade-long power vacuum in Northern Ireland. The formation of unity governments is one of the key points of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, but the DUP has blocked the formation of the executive precisely because of its opposition to the Protocol. “The real test of the new agreement will be the restoration of the Stormont Assembly,” Sunak said, in direct reference to the DUP’s blocking of the formation of an executive. “Northern Irish people deserve and need a functioning government.”