By Sam Blewett, David Hughes and Sophie Wingate, PA Political Staff
The European Union and United Kingdom have signed a breakthrough deal over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland and will now seek to win the backing of unionists and Tory Eurosceptics.
British prime minister Rishi Sunak and the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen finalised the long-awaited agreement to ease the trading issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol during a summit at Windsor in England on Monday, sources from both sides told the PA news agency.
“An agreement has been reached. The deal is done,” a senior Downing Street source said.
The European Commission president will go on to have tea with Britain's King Charles at Windsor Castle despite criticisms that the meeting would drag him into the politically contentious deal.
Mr Sunak hopes the deal will win the approval of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) so power-sharing can be restored in Northern Ireland to get Stormont back up and running.
DUP support would also be key in convincing Conservative Brexiteers to back the deal as pressure mounted on the Prime Minister to give MPs a Commons vote.
Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We’ll take our time to consider the detail and measure a deal against our seven tests.”
This afternoon I will hold a press conference with the President of the European Commission @vonderleyen on Northern Ireland.
Watch live online on my channels. pic.twitter.com/NKHG1Uza5s
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) February 27, 2023
Earlier in the day, Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg warned Mr Sunak of a possible Tory revolt if the DUP does not support the deal, despite major concessions expected from the EU.
The former cabinet minister told GB News: “It will all depend on the DUP. If the DUP are against it, I think there will be quite a significant number of Conservatives who are unhappy.”
He said that the position of Boris Johnson, who he described as the “biggest figure in UK politics”, will be “fundamental”.
But arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland Office minister who had been on resignation watch, gave Mr Sunak his support.
Leaving No 10, he told broadcasters: “I can only say this: that the Prime Minister is on the cusp of securing a really fantastic result for everyone involved.”
Charles’s meeting with Ms von der Leyen was criticised as “constitutionally unwise” by Mr Rees-Mogg because it involves the King “in a matter of immediate political controversy”.
Arlene Foster, the former DUP leader and ex-first minister of Northern Ireland, said it was “crass and will go down very badly” with the unionists Mr Sunak is trying to win over.
Conservative Eurosceptic Theresa Villiers said it is “crucial” for Mr Sunak to give MPs a vote on the deal, as Downing Street declined to commit to one.
The former Northern Ireland secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I can’t conceive of circumstances where something as significant as this could be finally agreed and implemented without MPs voting on it in Parliament.”
She said she will consider the deal itself as well as talking to the DUP before deciding whether to support it, but stressed that restoring powersharing was “crucial”.
“It’s intolerable that we’ve got the protocol undermining political stability in Northern Ireland,” she said.
The UK prime minister will brief his senior ministers in a virtual meeting of the Cabinet.
He will then rejoin Ms von der Leyen to set out the deal to voters in a joint press conference before the Prime Minister makes a statement to MPs in the Commons.
Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) will convene MP Sir Bill Cash’s so-called “star chamber” of lawyers to scrutinise the deal before deciding whether to back it.
The protocol, signed by Mr Johnson as prime minister in 2020, was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.
Northern Ireland has continued to follow EU rules on goods to prevent checks being needed when crossing into the Republic.
But the trade barriers created between Northern Ireland and Great Britain have angered unionists.
The DUP collapsed powersharing at Stormont last year in protest at the protocol’s impact, leaving Northern Ireland without an executive or an assembly.
Mr Donaldson has issued seven tests that Mr Sunak’s new pact will have to meet to win DUP backing.
Chief among them is addressing what he calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.
The deal is expected to include check-free lanes for goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
Deputy UK prime minister Dominic Raab said the reduction in trade red tape would lead to a “substantial scaling back” of the role of the ECJ.