Northern Ireland’s DUP noncommittal as Rishi Sunak presents progress on EU deal
Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson reports ‘real progress’ in UK-EU diplomacy on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.
BELFAST — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met Northern Ireland party leaders Friday in the hope of unblocking a dispute about post-Brexit trade rules that has led the Democratic Unionist Party to refuse to form a power-sharing government in the U.K. region for 10 months.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson offered an unexpectedly upbeat but noncommittal assessment after face-to-face talks at a luxury hotel near Belfast with Sunak, who left without speaking to reporters.
Donaldson was the last of five Northern Ireland party chiefs to meet Sunak. The other four departing delegations said Sunak had declined to provide them any new details of the U.K.-EU agreement being painstakingly hammered out between London and Brussels.
Unlike the others, who mostly support existing EU-friendly trade rules and had relatively brief and upbeat chats with Sunak, Donaldson spent well over an hour locked in discussions with the prime minister, accompanied by his secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris.
Donaldson said he had been given new details — and broadly liked what he had been told.
“Clearly this is a big moment,” said Donaldson, who emphasized that his famously stubborn party would take no decision until it sees the final formal agreement text reached between London and Brussels.
“On some very important issues there has been real progress, but there remain some outstanding issues that we need to get over the line,” Donaldson said.
“It is absolutely crucial that this opportunity is taken,” Donaldson said — but rejected the suggestion that his own party would have to compromise to revive power-sharing at Stormont. He argued that Northern Ireland’s government could be “restored on a stable basis” only once the EU agreed that “Northern Ireland’s place within the U.K. and its internal market can be respected and protected.”
Ever since the Northern Ireland Assembly election last May, the Democratic Unionists have blocked any revival of their cross-community government with the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin, a core goal of the region’s 1998 peace accord. Power-sharing rules require the two largest parties on each side of the divide to participate, otherwise a government cannot be formed or sustained.
Donaldson insists his party won’t resume cooperation unless Sunak’s government negotiates an end to EU-required checks on goods when they arrive at Northern Ireland’s ports from the rest of the U.K. To unionist fury, positioning post-Brexit checks at the ports has made it easier for many Northern Irish firms to trade with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, than to receive shipments as usual from Britain.
Briefings in recent weeks from officials in London, Brussels, Belfast and Dublin suggest the likely outcome will sharply reduce but not eliminate the need for such checks. Britain in December announced it had already agreed to start building permanent customs and sanitary-screening buildings at the ports — a step the Democratic Unionists had repeatedly blocked since 2021 while the Northern Ireland government was still functioning.
Building this so-called Irish Sea border is the cornerstone of the post-Brexit trade protocol for the island of Ireland agreed as part of the U.K.’s 2019 Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. It was designed to avoid the need to screen goods when they cross the land border into the Republic of Ireland and the wider EU.
The other Northern Ireland parties, including the moderate Ulster Unionists, want to maintain this barrier-free border because it creates an advantage for Northern Ireland exporters and prevents disruption to a thriving all-Ireland agrifood supply chain.
Raising expectations of a deal announcement as early as next week, Sunak was due to fly later Friday to Germany to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the fringes of the Munich Security Conference.
Alongside Friday’s diplomacy in Belfast, U.K. Foreign Minister James Cleverly traveled to Brussels to meet the Commission’s point man on Brexit matters, Maroš Šefčovič, to assess how close the two sides are on announcing a compromise agreement.
Šefčovič offered only positive mood music in his post-meeting comments. “Constructive engagement. Good progress,” he tweeted. “The shared objective clear: joint solutions, responding to the everyday concerns of people in NI. Hard work continues.”