Rishi Sunak has been warned by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Tory backbenchers against “caving in” to the EU in negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Lord Dodds, the DUP’s leader in the House of Lords, told The Sunday Telegraph that he feared the Prime Minister was “softening people up” for concessions that would leave the Protocol intact.
Last week, the UK and EU hailed a breakthrough in negotiations by striking a mini-deal to give the EU access to UK databases on trade flows of goods and animals from Britain to Northern Ireland.
On Monday, James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, and Chris Heaton Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will meet Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s chief negotiator, for further talks on the Protocol, which introduced border checks on British goods to prevent a hard Irish border after Brexit.
However, the DUP have said the two sides are still nowhere near a deal that would be sufficient for them to restore power sharing, which has been suspended since the party withdrew from the Northern Ireland Executive in February 2022 in protest over the Protocol’s terms.
‘Softening people up for a cave in’
Lord Dodds said: “A deal in the coming weeks can only happen if the UK Government caves in completely, given the fact that there’s been no change in the EU negotiating mandate and all of the things that the EU are talking about involve taking the rough edges off implementation, not actually a renegotiation.
“If this is being talked up, it can only be on the basis that our Government is preparing the ground, softening people up for a cave in.”
He said the Government had further weakened trust in the Unionist community by recently bringing forward legislation that would let it build border control posts at Northern Ireland ports – something ministers say is needed whether a deal is achieved with the EU or not.
“It’s a scandalous attempt to actually implement the current Protocol,” Lord Dodds said. “It has done a lot of damage to relations between Unionists and the Government.”
‘Constitutionally it’s an abhorrence’
He meanwhile poured cold water over a speech by Sir Keir Starmer on Friday in which the Labour leader said a deal was possible “to remove the majority of checks” on goods entering Northern Ireland.
Lord Dodds said this would not resolve the fundamental issue of Northern Ireland being subject to the rules of the EU’s Single Market.
“The mere reduction in the number of checks doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “The problem that we have in Northern Ireland is that we are subject over vast swathes of our economy to laws made in Brussels … constitutionally it’s an abhorrence.”
In his speech, Sir Keir said that he would give Mr Sunak Labour votes in Parliament to push through a deal, even in the face of opposition from the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory backbenchers.
Lord Dodds said that the Prime Minister had to be “very careful” about the “positioning” of Sir Keir.
Despite Labour ruling out rejoining the Single Market, Lord Dodds warned that if the Tories failed to resolve the current impasse it would “leave the door open for an incoming Labour government to say ‘well the only way we can sort this problem out is by aligning the whole of the UK more closely to the EU’.”
A ‘Trojan horse’ from Labour
Sir Keir’s offer was also given short shrift by David Jones, the deputy chair of the ERG.
He told The Telegraph: “I’m sure that the Prime Minister is well capable of seeing a Trojan horse when it presents itself. There is no way that he is going to want to rely upon Labour votes in order to get legislation through.”
Mr Jones said that the changes to the Protocol “being touted around” were not enough for his group. “The ERG would certainly want to see the constitutional integrity of the UK restored, which is not the case at the moment,” he said. He added that it would be a “futile exercise” if a deal was struck which failed to restore Northern Ireland’s institutions because it lacked Unionist buy-in.
With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaching in April, Lord Dodds said Mr Sunak and European leaders had to decide: “Do we want the political process in Northern Ireland or do we want this Protocol?”
“If they adhere to the Protocol, well there is not going to be the restoration of the institutions and Rishi Sunak is therefore going to have to deal with the fallout of that,” he said.
“Surely after 25 years, he doesn’t want to be the prime minister that goes down as the one who destroyed the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement and the institutions in Northern Ireland?”