By David Young and Rebecca Black, PA
The DUP has established a consultation panel to inform its deliberations on the new deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Former DUP leaders and first ministers Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster are among those on the eight-member panel announced by current leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
Mr Donaldson has made clear that the DUP will take its time to consider the Windsor Framework before deciding whether to back it and lift its current blockade of devolution at Stormont.
Today I have established a group to commence and undertake a wide consultation process within NI, listening and taking views on the Framework document. This work will be undertaken in parallel with our on-going engagement with the UK Government. https://t.co/HAXHTmbs3Z
— Jeffrey Donaldson MP (@J_Donaldson_MP) March 6, 2023
He said the panel would report to him by the end of March.
“Today I have established a group to commence and undertake a wide consultation process within Northern Ireland, listening and taking views on the Framework document,” he said.
“This work will be undertaken in parallel with our ongoing engagement with the UK Government.
“The group will comprise both members of our party as well as independent thinkers who have standing within the broader community.
“They will want to engage with a broad section of the unionist and loyalist community, the business sector, civic society and others who want to see Northern Ireland prosper within the Union.”
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the framework deal last week after months of intensive negotiations aimed at reducing checks on Irish Sea trade created by Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
While cutting back on checks required on goods destined for use in Northern Ireland arriving from Great Britain, the deal also contains a new mechanism – the so-called “Stormont brake” – that offers a minority of MLAs (30 from at least two parties) the ability to refer to the UK government its concerns about the introduction of new EU laws in Northern Ireland.
The UK government could then potentially prevent the application of those laws in the North.
Mr Sunak has also committed to amending the 1998 Northern Ireland Act to provide further reassurance to unionists about the region’s constitutional status within the UK.
Some prominent DUP figures, including Lord Dodds and MPs Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, have already suggested that the deal potentially does not go far enough to address their concerns over trade and sovereignty.
The immediate future of devolution at Stormont rests on whether the DUP agree to go back into powersharing.
London and Brussels are both keen to see the institution restored ahead of next month’s landmark 25th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement.
Mr Donaldson said the panel comprises individuals with “political, legal and business experience”.
Its members are DUP MP Carla Lockhart, DUP peer Lord Weir, former DUP leaders and Stormont first ministers Mr Robinson and Baroness Foster, businessman Ross Reed, lawyer John McBurney and DUP MLAs Brian Kingston and Deborah Erskine.
Mr Donaldson said the detail of the legislative changes set to be brought forward by the UK government would be a “major factor” in his party’s decision-making.
He insisted the end of March was not a deadline for making a call.
“Whether we will have made enough progress in terms of legislation and other matters before the end of this month is beyond my control, so I’m not setting the end of March as the deadline,” he said.
“I’m saying we want to complete our processes before the end of this month.”
He said having Stormont working again for the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement next month was not a factor in the party’s thinking.
“That is just not something I’m taking into account at all,” he said.
“I want to get this right, and however long that takes, it is important we get it right.”
The DUP set out seven tests in 2021 to measure any changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Asked if the tests would take precedence over what the panel reported back on, he said: “Our seven tests remain in place. And, as I’ve said consistently, we will judge any new agreement, and in this case the new framework, against those seven tests.
“That’s why we need to understand what the framework means in practice, what it means in law, and then apply that to our seven tests.
“I think it is important to hear what people have to say about this. And we need to understand where business is coming from, we need to understand where people right across the community what their perspective is on this, so I think, given the importance of this decision for Northern Ireland, it’s right that not only do we look at this internally, and measure it against our seven tests, but that we hear from others as well, because that will, I think, help us to come to our internal assessment.”
He added: “We will always listen to what people have to say, both internally within the party and externally across the community.
“But, ultimately, this is a political decision that we, as a political party, are tasked with taking.”