RISHI Sunak has said that a new deal to replace Boris Johnson’s controversial Brexit agreement has removed “any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”.
It comes with the devolved administration in Northern Ireland in a state of paralysis because of Johnson’s Brexit. Unionists have refused to take part in power sharing at Stormont, saying the deal undermined their place in the UK by putting a customs border down the Irish sea.
Although there was a concensus that the Tories' controversial Northern Ireland Protocol needed to be changed, threats and grandstanding characterised the former Conservative administration’s attitude to the negotiations with the EU.
But speaking alongside Sunak on Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed a “new chapter”.
The two leaders unveiled the “Windsor framework”, saying it will deliver smooth flowing trade and safeguard sovereignty.
The EU chief said it the framework "respects and protects our respective markets and legitimate interests".
"Most importantly, it protects the very hard-earned gains of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement for the people of Northern Ireland, and across the island of Ireland," she added.
MPs will have to vote on the deal, but reports suggests Sunak is confident of winning the support he needs from his own backbenches, without having to rely on Labour.
The full text of the agreement is to be published on Monday afternoon, with Eurosceptic Tory MPs set to comb through it before deciding whether to back it or not.
Von der Leyen will go on to meet the King at Windsor Castle despite criticism that the meeting would drag Charles into the politically contentious deal.
The Prime Minister said: “I’m pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough.
“Together we have changed the original protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor framework.
“Today’s agreement delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Sunak said he believes the deal is a “turning point for Northern Ireland” that addresses the concerns of the DUP, and is now hoping they will back it and restore powersharing in Stormont.
Referencing changes to customs and VAT rules, Sunak added: “This means we have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea.”
Asked whether he believed Unionists will accept “different treatment” in Northern Ireland, the Tory leader said people will see the new deal “delivers significant improvements in almost every aspect of their lives” that have been negatively impacted by the protocol.
He acknowledged Northern Ireland has access to the single market and to avoid a hard border with the Republic there is a “lot of EU law”.
But Sunak said the new deal allows for “further democratic accountability”, providing a “very powerful mechanism” for Stormont to use when it has concerns.
He said the agreement was vital to “providing reassurance to everyone in Northern Ireland that they are in control of their destiny”.
The deal introduces a new Stormont “brake”, allowing the assembly not only to have a say over EU laws but also to block them from applying in Northern Ireland.
“This will establish a clear process for which the democratically elected assembly can pull an emergency brake” for changes to EU rules on goods that would have a “significant and lasting” effect on everyday life, Sunak said.
If the brake is pulled, the UK Government will have a veto, he added.
LibDem leader Ed Davey urged Tory MPs to “put country before party” and back the new post-Brexit arrangement for Northern Ireland.
He said: “We welcome the opportunity to take the time to read this deal, but we hope that it will be a step forward – bringing much-needed certainty and stability for Northern Ireland’s economy and society.
“The Conservative government was responsible for this mess in the first place. It shouldn’t have taken years for them to get to this point.
“Rather than do the responsible thing, it looks like Conservative MPs would prefer to fight amongst themselves. It’s like we’re stuck in Groundhog Day. It’s time for them to put country before party.”
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Kyle, said: “Today is an opportunity for Northern Ireland, the UK and EU to move forwards.
“Attention should be on the contents of any protocol deal. Parties and communities in Northern Ireland will need some time to assess the deal.
“Labour stands ready to act in all Northern Ireland’s interests.”