The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) privately warned the UK government that a “dual regulation” environment in Northern Ireland would not work for crucial industry groups, despite the idea now being one of its demands to restore the region’s devolved government.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, told MPs on Wednesday that the party wanted to see both European Union and UK standards applying simultaneously in Northern Ireland in order to make prime minister Rishi Sunak’s new deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements for the region acceptable to unionists.
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However, in a letter to UK ministers last September, Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s chief whip at Westminster and one of the party’s most vocal critics of the Windsor Framework deal, admitted that important commercial interest groups such as farmers had no interest in such a regime.
“The big issue which the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) have raised is the area of dual regulation,” Wilson wrote in a letter to the agriculture department, Defra, seen by the Financial Times, adding that the idea “does raise some concerns for us”.
He explained that farmers in Northern Ireland would always opt to follow EU rules for commercial reasons because that gave them equal access to both the UK and EU markets.
“To keep their purchasers happy they would have to comply with EU regulations, even though the milk or beef may not eventually go to the EU,” Mr Wilson wrote.
Mr Wilson, the DUP and the UFU did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Under the Windsor Framework – which London says offers the region unparalleled economic opportunities – Northern Ireland industrial and food manufacturers must follow EU rules to access the EU single market. The UK internal market also accepts EU-standard goods.
The idea of a “dual regulation” framework for Northern Ireland was proposed in former prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial Northern Ireland protocol Bill that was replaced by Mr Sunak’s Windsor Framework.
The DUP on Wednesday voted against the framework, which leaves Northern Ireland following EU rules for goods, saying it needs “clarification, reworking and change” to protect the region’s place in the UK.
But London has said there will be none. “There is nothing more to get out of ... negotiation. It is done,” Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, said on Thursday.
Mr Donaldson, who has been boycotting Northern Ireland’s powersharing executive at Stormont since May over the Brexit row, will give his verdict on the framework after a panel he has appointed to canvass unionists’ views reports back at the end of the month.
But at Westminster on Wednesday, he insisted: “What I do not accept is a situation where every business in my constituency must comply with EU rules even if they do not sell a single widget to the EU. That is wrong, because it harms our place in the internal market of the UK.”
However, UK officials say the DUP has yet to come up with concrete examples of where the requirement to follow EU rules has impeded Northern Ireland companies from trading with the UK.
Trade groups say their members overwhelmingly support the Windsor framework. Northern Ireland’s dairy industry, for example, sends milk into the Republic of Ireland for processing and has said a dual regulatory regime would be unworkable.
Stephen Kelly, head of the industry body Manufacturing NI, says 90 per cent of the region’s 4,640 manufacturing companies already follow EU rules because they export to Ireland and other EU countries.
Despite the DUP defiance, an Irish News/Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool poll published this week found 45 per cent support for the Windsor Framework – with only 16.9 per cent of voters actively opposed to the deal – and the remaining 38.1 per cent neutral or expressing no opinion. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023