Northern Ireland

EU will have ‘some questions’ on DUP’s deal with British government, says Leo Varadkar

The Taosieach said he did not think there were any ‘red flags’ in the package struck to restore powersharing.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in Brussels today (Niall Carson/PA)

The EU has “some questions” about a British government deal to restore powersharing at Stormont that pledges significant changes to post-Brexit trading arrangements, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar said that while the European Commission would have queries about the command paper, there were no suggestions on an initial assessment that it contained any “red flags”.

The DUP has said the package to revive devolution in Belfast has delivered “fundamental change” to UK/EU arrangements on post-Brexit trade.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party has negotiated “clear” alterations to the Windsor Framework by ending routine checks on goods moving from Britain to final destinations in Northern Ireland.Major changes to the UK/EU legal framework would require the approval of Brussels.

Downing Street, however, has said the measures announced on Wednesday do not require specific EU sign-off, calling them “operational” changes to the framework, without altering the “fundamentals” of the bilateral deal.

The Government is fast-tracking two pieces of domestic legislation in Parliament on Thursday that will give effect to commitments made in its Safeguarding The Union command paper.

Their passage would clear the way for the DUP to give the green light for a Stormont return.

MLAs have been put on notice of the prospect of a hastily recalled sitting.

The expectation is Stormont could be back up and running as soon as Saturday, when the Northern Ireland Assembly chamber at Parliament Buildings would witness the historically significant moment of the appointment of its first nationalist first minister, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill.

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris both spoke to EU executive vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday to outline the proposals contained in the command paper.

In a statement, the EU Commission said it would “carefully analyse” the measures.

Mr Varadkar is in Brussels today to attend a European Council meeting. The Taoiseach said he had spoken to commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday about the UK/DUP deal.

“There are definitely going to be some questions about what was agreed between the UK and DUP but nobody is at this stage saying that there’s any red flags or anything that gives us major concern,” Mr Varadkar told reporters in Brussels.

“And certainly, from our point of view in Ireland, our priority was always to make sure there is no hard border between north and south, I think that’s been achieved and protected.

“And also to make sure that there would never be any doubt about our position in the single market of the European Union. They were always our priorities, our red lines, and they haven’t been breached.”

On Tuesday, before the command paper’s publication, the UK and EU did announce a joint move on trade tariff quotas that will increase the ability of Northern Ireland traders to import internationally-sourced agri-food goods via UK free trade deals with other countries.

The paper commits to replacing the Windsor Framework’s green lane process at Northern Ireland ports, which requires percentages of goods to be checked as they arrive from Great Britain, with a “UK internal market system” that will govern the movement of goods that remain within the United Kingdom.

Checks would still be carried out but on a risk-based/intelligence-led model to combat illegality and disease, rather than routine stops of disembarking lorries.

Businesses using the internal market system would also need to be signed up to a trusted trader scheme.

Sir Jeffrey has hailed the move as a key concession that will effectively scrap the contentious so-called Irish Sea border for goods destined to remain within the UK.

Thursday’s motions at Parliament will be on the draft Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 and the draft Windsor Framework (Internal Market and Unfettered Access) Regulations 2024.

One will provide legislative assurances on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK, with the other delivering the changes to the trading system by amending the Internal Markets Act.

The measure to reduce checks on GB-NI trade is part of a wide-ranging deal agreed between the DUP and the Government that will bring about the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland after a two-year hiatus.

The DUP has agreed to drop its two-year blockade of Stormont in exchange for the Government measures aimed at addressing its concerns about post-Brexit trading arrangements that created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

While Sir Jeffrey has secured the backing of a majority of senior party colleagues to accept the deal, there are those within the DUP who remain deeply sceptical of the proposed agreement to restore powersharing.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson demonstrated that on Wednesday, heavily criticising the Government as the package was debated in the Commons.

The return of Stormont will see the Treasury release a £3.3 billion package to support under-pressure public services in Northern Ireland.

The financial package, announced by the Government before Christmas, includes money to settle the demands of striking public sector workers in the region this year.

Despite the moves to restore the devolved institutions, industrial action continued on Thursday, with public transport workers and school support staff picketing in the latest day of strikes in Northern Ireland.