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Donaldson hails UK-EU agreement on changes to post-Brexit NI trade rules

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris spoke to the media on Tuesday after the DUP said it would return to powersharing (Victoria Jones/PA)
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris spoke to the media on Tuesday after the DUP said it would return to powersharing (Victoria Jones/PA)

The UK and EU have agreed a significant change affecting the movement of some goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – as politicians in Northern Ireland gear up for a return to powersharing.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the changes show the “naysayers are wrong”, after the UK-EU joint committee expanded the category of “not at risk” goods entering Northern Ireland.

Some trade experts said the decision amounts to a legal change under the Windsor Framework, while also allowing Northern Ireland to better benefit from free trade agreement secured by the UK Government covering agri-food foods such as New Zealand lamb.

Downing Street stressed that the draft update was separate to proposals to restore powersharing. The Northern Ireland Secretary had also earlier played down the need for any fresh renegotiations with the EU under the proposed deal to get the DUP back into Stormont.

Sir Jeffrey said: “This demonstrates that the naysayers are wrong. There will be legal changes.

“I asked people to wait and study the outcome rather than follow misinformed speculation. There is more to come. The DUP is delivering real change.”

Chris Heaton-Harris and Downing Street on Tuesday were keen to stress that the agreement on the table will not stop the UK from exploiting post-Brexit freedoms when it comes to moving away from Brussels’ trade rules.

Senior Conservatives have pressed upon Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that Britain must be able to diverge from the EU if it is to make the most of leaving the bloc.

It comes after Mr Sunak was reportedly said to be considering offering to voluntarily limit divergence from EU rules in the future to limit the impact of an Irish Sea trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Such a position would likely put the Government on a collision path with Brexiteers.

Mr Heaton-Harris, who said the terms of the deal to restore the Stormont Assembly will be published on Wednesday, hailed the joint committee decision.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, he wrote: “Welcome the news of a draft joint UK-EU legal solution to cut tariffs for food imports to NI.

“This would enable NI traders to benefit from our independent trade policy on key goods like New Zealand lamb and Australian beef.”

The lengthy wrangling over the shape of an agreement to resurrect powersharing has primarily been between the DUP and the Westminster Government.

It had been thought that any move to remove all checks and customs paperwork on GB-NI trade would require EU support, as the arrangements that govern Irish Sea trade – the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework – have been jointly agreed between Brussels and London.

The European Commission said the proposal came “following in-depth technical discussions with the UK”. Vice-president Maros Sefcovic described it as “based on a careful assessment of trade data and replies to the needs of Northern Ireland businesses, while protecting our single market”.

Mr Heaton-Harris had earlier declined to say if he had held negotiations with Brussels before the DUP agreed to participate in talks to revive devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen struck a deal on the Windsor Framework last year (PA)

Number 10 indicated that the timing of the UK-EU joint decision was coincidental. A spokeswoman for Mr Sunak said: “That is not part of this agreement. This is separate – this is an update on some separate work we have been working on with the European Commission.

“This is a joint legal solution that will benefit Northern Ireland traders. But to be clear, this is a separate stream of work from the agreement that was discussed last night and that will be published tomorrow.”

The Cabinet minister, who was due in Belfast on Tuesday to speak with political figures in the region, said the agreement “hasn’t affected divergence in any shape or form” in relation to Brexit.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the package “will not change the freedoms and powers that we have secured through Brexit or through the Windsor Framework”.

The spokesman added: “It won’t reduce our ability to diverge nor our commitment to do so should it be in the interests of the UK.”

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, under questioning in the Commons from pro-Brexit Tory MPs last week, said she would raise concerns “at the highest level” about a reported offer by the UK Government to limit divergence from EU laws in order to restore devolution in Belfast.

Tory former cabinet minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg was quoted in The Telegraph as saying any such deal would mean “we will not diverge at all”.

On Tuesday, the Commons European Scrutiny Committee raised concerns that, under current terms, new EU rules on mobile phone design could see Northern Ireland diverge and have “significant differences” from the UK.

Included in the EU’s plans for greater sustainability are requirements for phone software updates to remain available for at least five years after the product is placed on the market, and producers will need to make critical spare parts available for seven years after sales of the product end.

Stormont Assembly
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the new UK Government deal will remove all NI/GB checks (Liam McBurney/PA)

In its report, the committee said the divergence “would not be acceptable” and would constitute “yet another example of the damage that current arrangements under the Windsor Framework are causing to the union”.

At his press conference, the Northern Ireland Secretary said negotiations over powersharing had involved a “very long conversation” with the DUP about “how we can make better Northern Ireland’s place in our internal market”.

Sir Jeffrey said the deal to restore Stormont powersharing will remove all post-Brexit checks on goods moving into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Mr Heaton-Harris, asked if that has been achieved, said: “We have been able to achieve quite a vast array of decent improvements to make sure our internal market works properly, as it should do, and you will hopefully be able to see those tomorrow.”

No 10 confirmed Mr Sunak and Mr Heaton-Harris briefed the rest of Cabinet on the developments on devolution on Tuesday.