The Democratic Unionist Party has said “progress had been made” on a deal to change post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland amid fevered speculation that two years of bitter deadlock is finally at an end, writes Mattie Brignal.

British and European officials are hoping an agreement to change the existing Northern Ireland Protocol will be unveiled on Tuesday, when Rishi Sunak will brief his Cabinet on the details.

However, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s leader, added that his party will not compromise on its Brexit “red lines”, after talks today with Sunak, who’s been on a whistlestop diplomatic visit to Belfast to sell the deal, ahead of a meeting with EU leaders this weekend.  

Can the PM get the deal over the line?

The DUP is still the big stumbling block. The party sees itself as the big loser from current trade arrangement, which involves treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.

After the UK voted to leave the EU, Northern Ireland posed one of the thorniest questions: how do you check goods travelling over the border from NI into EU territory (to preserve the sanctity of the EU’s single market) without creating a hard land border (which would endanger the Good Friday Agreement)? The NI Protocol squared the circle by moving the customs border to the Irish Sea.

This was anathema to the DUP. For a year, the party has refused to enter into the power-sharing agreement at Stormont in protest at the Protocol, meaning devolved government has ground to a halt.

One major sticking point has been the role of the European Court of Justice, which at the moment is the sole arbiter in trade disputes between the UK and Brussels in Northern Ireland.

To unite rival factions of his party, Sunak needs to get the Eurosceptic right onside with the new deal. But Tory hardliners are also watching closely to see the extent to which the ECJ’s jurisdiction will be watered down.

David Jones MP, member of the hardline Brexiteer European Research Group, said yesterday: “The Protocol won’t be fixed by displaying green and red signs and pretending the ECJ hasn’t got supreme jurisdiction in Northern Ireland when it manifestly has. NI must cease to be subject to laws made in Brussels. It’s as simple as that. Anything less won’t work.”

The UK government appears to want an arrangement where the ECJ’s role would be diluted or put at arm’s length, while much of the burdensome customs red tape will be done away with by having the UK government share more information on goods with Brussels.
While Sunak is banking that pressure on the DUP is intense enough for it to accept the deal, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson could face a humiliating climbdown if he agrees.

Sources close to the UK government told the Belfast Times that a detailed briefing showing that the DUP’s criteria have been met is set to be published alongside the deal.

Yet this could require some creative redefining of key terms. Whichever way you look at it, any deal is certain to keep some form of customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One of the DUP’s red lines, however, is that any new deal “does not constitute a border in the Irish Sea”.

Getting all sides to sign on the dotted line would be a serious political coup for Sunak. It would help him sell the idea that he’s the can-do prime minister, succeeding where his predecessors – May, Johnson, and (briefly) Truss – failed.

All eyes will be on the PM’s meeting with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, in Munich this weekend for a sign that the Protocol saga really is over – for now at least.

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