Britain is “on the cusp of a deal” to resolve the long-running dispute over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has said.
Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, the cabinet minister said he hoped for an agreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol in “a matter of days not weeks”.
The justice secretary also indicated what the revamped deal could contain, including a “green lane” for GB goods into Northern Ireland to smooth friction on trade.
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Mr Raab suggested the reduction in regulatory checks would involve a “substantial scaling back” of the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the region, which has been a major sticking point for Unionists and Tory Eurosceptics.
In addition, he signalled a mechanism had been negotiated to tackle the “democratic deficit” in the protocol, giving Stormont a say over any new EU rules that would affect Northern Ireland – a key test of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Mr Raab made his comments after Rishi Sunak said the government was “giving it everything” to strike a deal.
Meanwhile, Labour has said it expects to back any pact reached in the national interest.
The DUP has refused to take part in devolved power-sharing at Stormont with Sinn Fein in protest at the impact the Brexit treaty has had on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why does it matter?
On the likelihood of a breakthrough in talks, Mr Raab said: “We are not there yet. But we are obviously in a position where we are on the cusp of a deal.
“I am reasonably confident. We wouldn’t be talking about it if we didn’t think there was a good momentum… but we have got to get all the pieces in place.”
He added: “But I think, hopefully, there will be good news in a matter of days, not weeks.
“Hopefully, there will be good news in a matter of days not weeks.”
He added: “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 and substantial scaling back of the role of the ECJ.
“In the irreducible core areas where the EU insists that EU rules need to apply to protect the integrity of the single market, we need to make sure if there are any new rules in the future there’s a proper democratic check and a proper check coming out of the institutions in Stormont.”
Labour ‘expect to support deal’
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said he expected his party to back any deal.
He told Ridge: “Labour is determined to act in the national interest of our country and of Northern Ireland.
“It’s very likely that if a deal does emerge it will be an improvement on the Northern Ireland protocol deal that was struck by Boris Johnson just a few years ago.
“And for that reason, we have indicated that we expect to support this deal when it emerges, I suspect in the next few days.”
People ‘entitled to look at small print’
Mr Lammy added: “If he (Rishi Sunak) does get a deal then credit to him because this is hugely important for the national interest of our country and for the people of Northern Ireland.
“We want power-sharing to get back, we want Stormont to get back and certainly businesses and the community in Northern Ireland do not want unnecessary friction at the border.”
But he cautioned: “There should be no rush, I think, on any vote in parliament.
“People are entitled to look at the small print in detail.
“I hope now that all of us can come together and vote through any deal, and get back to Stormont, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement, and move on from this episode that has now gone on for many years indeed.”
Deal ‘not going to fly’ without DUP approval
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Mark Francois, chairman of the Tory Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) told Ridge any deal would need the support of Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party.
He said: “That’s just a practical reality, because if the DUP don’t consent to the deal, then it’s simply not going to fly. And that’s been absolutely obvious right from the word go.”
The former minister also warned a reduced role for the ECJ over Northern Ireland was not “good enough”.
Mr Francois said: “Less of a role is not enough. Just putting a couple of intermediate phases in, but in a situation where you still end up with the European Court of Justice, is effectively sophistry. I mean, we’re not stupid.
“What we want is a situation where EU law is expunged from Northern Ireland, so it is treated on the same basis as England, Scotland and Wales.”
He added: “We have left the European Union. It doesn’t have that role now in England or in Scotland or in Wales.
“So, if we’re going to treat Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom, then we have to get rid of the EU law in Northern Ireland. We’ve been absolutely consistent on this.”