The UK is on the “cusp” of a Brexit deal with the EU to overhaul Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements, Britain’s deputy prime minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday.
The two sides are close to resolving the bitter dispute arising since the UK left the EU single market and customs union in 2021 by agreeing changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets out the region’s trading regime and was part of the Brexit agreement finalised by Boris Johnson.
Pro-British parties in Northern Ireland objected to how the protocol treats the region differently to the rest of the UK, while businesses complained about unnecessary bureaucracy.
Rishi Sunak’s proposed Brexit deal is designed not only to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland, but also to improve the UK’s relations with the EU and the US, where Joe Biden’s administration has expressed concerns.
British officials said the UK and the EU had held “positive” talks on Sunday in an attempt to finalise a deal which could be announced as early as Monday.
“Hopefully there will be good news in a matter of days rather than weeks,” Raab told Sky News on Sunday. “We are not there yet, but we are obviously in a position where we are close to, on the cusp of, a deal.”
Sunak told the Sunday Times he was “giving it everything” to try to strike a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol.
But he could face a showdown with some Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, over the deal to overhaul the protocol.
The DUP last year forced the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government at Stormont in protest at how the protocol creates a de facto border in the Irish Sea.
The DUP objects to how goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must undergo checks. This reflects how Northern Ireland remains part of the EU single market for goods in Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Sunak told the Sunday Times that he did not believe the deal would leave Northern Ireland in the “orbit” of Brussels.
The prime minister added he would try to resolve the concerns of the DUP, which also objects to how the European Court of Justice has a role in overseeing implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has called for changes to the legally binding UK withdrawal agreement with the EU and has urged Sunak to get the right deal, even if that takes longer.
Ireland’s taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Saturday that the UK and EU were “inching towards conclusion” of a deal. “I would just encourage everyone to go the extra mile to come to an agreement because the benefits are huge,” he told reporters.
Raab confirmed the proposed Brexit deal was designed to cut checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and to limit the role of the European Court of Justice.
A “green lane” with minimal checks would be set up at Irish Sea ports for goods going from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. A “red lane” involving substantive checks would be used for goods heading for the Irish Republic.
Control over issues, including value added tax and state aid, would rest with London, rather than Brussels.
“If we can scale back some of the regulatory checks that apply and some of the paperwork that applies, that would in itself involve a significant, substantial scaling back of the role of the European Court of Justice,” said Raab.
The deal is expected to reduce the influence of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland but keep it as the ultimate arbiter of disputes about EU law.
Mark Francois, leader of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs, said cutting the influence of the European Court of Justice was not enough.
He told Sky News the DUP could not accept a Brexit deal where EU law was superior to UK law in Northern Ireland.
“Unless that legal text when we see it expunges EU law from Northern Ireland it’s very unlikely that the DUP will support it . . . less of a role is not enough,” said Francois. “We have to get rid of EU law in Northern Ireland.”