After countless back and forth and failed negotiations attempts on the Northern Ireland protocol, Rishi Sunak is in Belfast today to present the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with a deal. If they accept it, we might have a solution by early next week.
In the meantime, foreign secretary James Cleverly is in Brussels for meetings with the European Commission – in a coordinated sign that we’ve definitely reached a potential turning point in the dispute.
The protocol, meant to set rules and guidelines for trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK post-Brexit, caused a headache for British and EU negotiators who had to come back to the negotiating table again and again. The unionists refused to engage in the political process until changes were made to the protocol, making matters even more complex.
Despite some refreshing optimism about a final resolution to this never-ending dispute, it’s not sure at all that the DUP will accept the current solution. In fact the deal in its current form maintains a role for the EU’s Court of Justice when it comes to dispute resolution in Northern Ireland, which is something the unionists have been vehemently opposing. Yet, Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, said he has not seen the full text yet, but he talked of “real progress” today – potentially opening a window of hope.
The deal contains the elimination of some of the checks on goods going from the UK to Northern Ireland, one of the main areas of contention between the British government and the EU. This would create different coloured “lanes” for goods that stay in Northern Ireland and those that go on to be exported in the EU, with a focus on food and animal health checks. The products staying in Northern Ireland would be subject to lighter checks.
But the DUP is not the only faction Rishi Sunak has to bring on board. Hard-line Brexiteers within his party – coming together under the umbrella of the European research group – want the European Court of Justice completely out of the picture. Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, has also been a vocal opponent of any deal perceived to be even slightly lenient. His line is “no deal is still better than a bad one”.
Sunak is now travelling to Munich to meet his European counterparts at a security summit, including the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen. The prime minister’s weekend is shaping up to be a busy one.