Week-in-Review: Getting Brexit ‘done’ in NI will make or break Sunak’s premiership

As I write, Rishi Sunak is locked in the middle of a 48-hour diplomacy blitz, amid reports that a Northern Ireland Protocol resolution has been reached. It comes after weeks of speculation about a deal in the six counties, with some reports suggesting an agreement has been resting on the prime minister’s desk for some weeks now. 

In what is a defining test for the prime minister, thorny details on a post-Brexit border, customs checks and food labelling rules may soon be settled. Rumours suggest the government has opted for a “green lane”-“red lane” resolution, meaning goods being shipped to NI from Great Britain will be treated differently to goods going on to the Republic of Ireland. On Thursday evening, Sunak landed in Belfast to trial the outline deal among “relevant stakeholders” — it was the most significant signal to date that the protocol’s end is nigh.

A solution would be a huge political and diplomatic victory for the prime minister, justifying his continued presence in Downing Street as MPs begin to question whether he really is a political “fixer”. But the high stakes mean risks are involved too. Failure to forge an agreement which satisfies both unionism and Conservative eurosceptics may see MPs fall further and further into fatalistic trenches. Indeed, as we approach a potential final chapter in the protocol saga, Sunak knows the fallout will either end or extend the Conservative Brexit psychodrama.

So how did Sunak’s stakeholder mapping go? Speaking one-by-one after meetings with the prime minister, NI party leaders proffered their perspectives on Friday morning. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald told the assembled press she felt “heartened” by the progress; a “fairly optimistic” Colum Eastwood of the SDLP was more cautious, suggesting only “scant” details had been unveiled; Naomi Long of the Alliance party continued that talks were “not over the line yet’’; this sentiment was then shared by UUP leader Doug Beattie, who concluded “there’s [still] a way to go”.

But as wave after wave of Northern Ireland’s political leaders arrived before the huddled press pack outside the Culloden Hotel in Belfast, there was only ever going to be one party dictating the headlines: the protocol-despising, power-sharing-denying DUP. 

The DUP are used to issuing diktats, of course. Since February 2022, the party has refused to engage with power-sharing arrangements at Stormont until its concerns over the protocol are resolved. Helpfully, the DUP has outlined seven “tests” that must be met for the party to accept the deal — they include no border in the Irish Sea and no checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The colour of the smoke emerging from the chimney of the Culloden hotel was all kinds of shades of grey, therefore, as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson marched towards reporters at Friday lunchtime. “Progress has been made”, the DUP leader said, with an hour-long tête-à-tête with the prime minister under his belt. But the optimistic pretences were quickly dropped as Sir Jeffrey reaffirmed the party’s commitment to its infamous redlines. “It is not a question of us compromising, it is a question of the UK Government honouring the commitments they have made to the people of Northern Ireland”, the DUP leader said forbiddingly. 

It is a reaction which underlines how narrow Sunak’s path to a protocol resolution is.

The big sticking point on any agreement, and the factor inciting the greatest angst among the DUP, is that of governance and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The European Union want the ECJ to be the final authority on Northern trade disputes, of which there would be many in a “green lane”-“red lane” situation, but UK officials have so far insisted that such a position would be untenable. Although this is one of the areas where a UK government climbdown is most anticipated. 

Asked on Friday morning if the DUP’s position was no ECJ oversight in NI at all, DUP chief whip Sammy Wilson relayed to BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme: “If the issue of being part of the single market rules and single market laws is removed from Northern Ireland then there is no need for the European Court of Justice”.

A compromise on the ECJ will test Sunak’s political nerve significantly, as Brexit purists rush to the DUPs’ defence on the issue. Members of the Conservative party’s European Research Group (ERG) have consistently argued that the ECJ is an affront to UK sovereignty, demanding that its jurisdiction be removed from any part of the United Kingdom. And by as early as Thursday evening, warning shots were already being fired.

Fourteen minutes before Sunak touched down in Belfast, David Jones, deputy chair of the ERG, warned: “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”.

Jones later told The Telegraph: “Simply having different coloured channels at Belfast port and saying you won’t have to go directly to the ECJ, you can litigate your disputes in Northern Ireland courts… that’s nowhere near enough”.

He added: “I would be astounded if the Unionist parties accepted this”. 

Veteran eurosceptic Sir John Redwood echoed this message, he tweeted this morning: “The EU needs to stop imposing its laws and its court on Northern Ireland if it wants a deal on trade. The EU has undermined the Good Friday Agreement and prevented Stormont meeting”.

This rhetoric shows how DUP denunciation can spark a powerful chain reaction within the Conservative party, whipping up a storm of anti-resolution rhetoric. And worse still for the prime minister, this reaction may start implicating MPs beyond the 50-plus members who convene as part of the ERG.

Former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke, for example, a perennial rebel under Sunak, took to Twitter on Thursday to invoke the Northern Ireland protocol bill as one way of satisfactorily ending the ECJ dispute. He voiced on Twitter: “In the absence of something decisively better, the default must remain enacting our Protocol legislation”. 

The EU has treated the NI protocol bill — which would unilaterally disapply aspects of the protocol — like a loaded gun, insisting it would contravene international law. Equally, Brexit purists think that Sunak is unilaterally disarming itself by holstering the legislation in the House of Lords. They want a gunslinging standoff with the EU, which they calculate will invite further concessions. 

The tensions here underline that the battle over the NI protocol, wherever it goes next, may define Sunak’s premiership. 

Will Sunak enter the history books as the man who upended one of Brexit’s most cited harms, reshaping Britain’s relationship with Europe for decades to come? Or will he be derided as the PM whose political fortunes, once again, were found to be at the beck and call of recalcitrant backbenchers?

So forget the rebellion over onshore wind in November or the tussles over the online safety bill in January, the stakes right now have never been higher for the prime minister. How a protocol dispute develops may ultimately dictate the trajectory of Sunak’s premiership, however long that may be. 

Of course, if things go really badly, a bad protocol deal might just dictate the very length of Sunak’s premiership. There remains a lingering threat that the “Bring Back Boris” crowd will use the battle over the protocol as a lightning rod for anti-Sunak discontent. If Johnson ultimately comes down against Sunak’s revisions to his Brexit deal, the political territory for the prime minster will become very shaky indeed.