UK government to assure DUP on NI’s status amid Supreme Court judgment concerns

The Government is to seek to address DUP concerns over a Supreme Court judgment on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of efforts to convince the party to sign up to its new Brexit deal.

Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris insisted the shape of the Windsor Framework agreement the UK had struck with the EU was in the “right space” but he said the Government could take other actions to assure unionists who still had doubts about the new proposals for Irish Sea trade.

Mr Heaton-Harris is currently in Washington DC with political leaders from across the island of Ireland as part of traditional St Patrick’s Day engagements.

The DUP is currently blocking devolution at Stormont in protest at trade barriers between Great Britain and NI created by Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.

While the party says the Windsor Framework has gone some way to address its concerns about the protocol, it says it does not deal with some “fundamental problems”.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who is also in Washington, is now seeking further clarity and assurances from the UK government to address his party’s continuing concerns.

Sir Jeffrey told the PA news agency that his party needed to see the shape of the legislation the Government was planning before making a final determination on the framework.

The Government has already pledged to legislate to underscore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom by way of amending the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

It also intends to pass legislation to give effect to the “Stormont brake” mechanism within the Windsor Framework that would allow a minority of MLAs at Stormont to formally flag concerns about the imposition of new EU laws in Northern Ireland – a move that could see the Government veto their introduction in the region.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald at the Ireland Fund’s 31st National Gala at the National Building Museum, in Washington, DC, during the Taoiseach’s visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day (Niall Carson/PA)

On attempts to provide assurance on Northern Ireland’s status within the UK, Mr Heaton-Harris said the Government could address issues flowing from last month’s judgment by the UK’s highest court.

In February, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge brought by a collective of unionist politicians who argued that domestic legislation underpinning the Northern Ireland Protocol conflicted with the 1800 Acts of Union that formed the United Kingdom, particularly Article 6 of that statute guaranteeing unfettered trade within the UK.

The Supreme Court found that while Art 6 of the Acts of Union has been “modified” by the Protocol, that was done with the express will of a sovereign parliament and so therefore was lawful.

The DUP and other unionists have highlighted the judgment as proof that the Brexit deal has subjugated the terms of the Acts of Union and undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK as a result.

In an interview with the PA news agency in Washington, Mr Heaton-Harris said the DUP was right to seek assurances from the Government.

“We’ve done the deal with the European Union and actually I think most people believe that that part of the deal is in the right space,” he said.

“But there are certain things that flow from the Supreme Court judgment not so long ago where we can say a bit more about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and indeed how parts of the Windsor Framework actually will work in practice, and they are the right questions to ask of the UK government, we hope we can answer them properly.”

Mr Heaton-Harris added: “The politicians of Northern Ireland are rightly asking the correct questions about how the Windsor Framework will work, how it will benefit all communities of Northern Ireland, how it will benefit businesses in Northern Ireland, how it makes Northern Ireland’s place in the Union that bit safer for the coming future. How it works with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which it absolutely does. They are the right questions to ask.”

The Northern Ireland Secretary said the Government did not want to “bounce” the DUP into accepting the framework, but he said he did remain optimistic about a “positive outlook” for the deal.

“The unionist community I know has felt bounced into things in the past and we absolutely do not want to do that this time,” he said.

“We want people to come to a considered view. My personal opinion is that that considered view will be a positive outlook on the Windsor Framework and I’m keen actually for people to ask questions about what the Windsor Framework actually brings along because they’re the right questions to be asking and I hope to be answering them in great detail.”

Sir Jeffrey said any legislation should restore Northern Ireland’s rights under the Acts of Union.

“I’ve come to Washington with a very clear message, that whilst the Windsor Framework represents significant progress, there is more work to be done and that’s why we need to see the legislation,” he said.

“We need to see what the UK Government intends to do in terms of implementing this framework to ensure that it adequately protects Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and restores our rights under Article Six of the Act of Union.”

In an interview with PA, he added: “I think that we do need to see the legislation linked to the Windsor Framework, because the framework is an outline, what we need is the detail, the legal text, the legislation that will actually implement this, so that we can ensure that it adequately protects Northern lreland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.”

Last week, Mr Heaton-Harris suggested the Government would be “bound” to veto any law if the Stormont brake element of the new Windsor Agreement was activated.

Some Stormont parties have expressed concern on whether his comments indicate that the brake will end up handing a powerful veto to a minority of MLAs.