Northern Ireland protocol: EU expects Sunak to push ahead with deal despite opposition

British PM under pressure from Boris Johnson and hardline Tory Eurosceptics over expected agreement

Senior figures in Dublin and Brussels expect British prime minister Rishi Sunak to push ahead with a new deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, despite signs on Monday of a rebellion within his own party.

Mr Sunak is under intense domestic pressure from former prime minister Boris Johnson and the group of hardline Eurosceptics in his party, and with the DUP as yet undecided on whether to back a deal, the fate of the proposed agreement still hangs in the balance.

British foreign secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris spoke by video call to the EU’s Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic on Monday with both sides later making positive noises about progress. But Downing Street firmly denied a deal was concluded, and expectations that Mr Sunak would present the deal to his cabinet tomorrow have faded.

Although sources close to the British government did not rule out the prospect of a last minute deal in the next couple of days if the DUP could be brought onboard, the focus was shifting to later in week and possibly even next week. James Cleverly, the British foreign secretary, is expected to be in the US on Friday, which suggests that if a deal is not struck on Wednesday or Thursday, any agreement, if one is reached, could be next week.


Senior Tory Brexiteers privately moved to dismiss speculation that Mr Sunak could choose to pursue a deal on the protocol without the agreement of the DUP. “It’s not even in his mind,” said one Brexiteer, who claimed to be familiar with the prime minister’s thinking.

Mr Johnson’s warning to Mr Sunak not to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – the legislation currently before the House of Lords which gives the British government the legal ability to set aside the protocol arrangements – was echoed on Monday from within the British government by home secretary Suella Braverman, and by several Eurosceptic hardliners on the Conservative backbenches.

Some ERG members said that they would follow the DUP’s lead on the protocol, but while DUP MP Sammy Wilson continued to make hardline noises, the party is waiting to see what the final deal contains.

British Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that he would back the deal in any House of Commons vote, thus ensuring that Mr Sunak has the parliamentary votes, but a substantial rebellion against any deal would damage him, especially with Mr Johnson said to be eyeing a return to power if Mr Sunak stumbles.

But Mr Sunak was preparing the ground for a push to accept the deal on Monday, with Bloomberg reporting that he was holding one-on-one holding meetings with Eurosceptics to appeal for their support.

In Dublin, officials said they expected the deal to proceed, but conceded they were less confident now than they were last week.

“All the technical issues have been done, it’s all pure politics now,” said one senior figure in Dublin.

It is understood that the agreement will include a provision for the Northern Assembly to register a concern against proposed changes in trade rules or product standards that would affect Northern Ireland, which would have to be taken into consideration by the EU.

In addition, officials say there are plans for a special investment conference backed by the EU and the US government if the deal is approved and the Assembly and Executive are revived.

There are some expectations that Mr Sunak may travel to Belfast again to convince the DUP to back the agreement, while European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen may travel to London to clinch the final deal.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times