Leo Varadkar says he ‘has regrets’ over Northern Ireland Protocol
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The UK and the European Union are braced for a significant breakthrough on the hated Northern Ireland Protocol, as a major agreement between the two countries has been reached. Britain has reportedly struck a customs deal with the bloc, which could pave the way to finally ending the dispute over Northern Ireland.
The EU is also understood to have made a major concession to the UK, accepting for the first time that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) can only rule on issues relating to Northern Ireland only if a case was referred by the Northern Irish courts.
This is a break from the previous line taken by Brussels, which formerly insisted that the European Commission should be able to take cases straight to the court themselves.
However, there is concern that the UK could make concessions allowing for a bigger role for the ECJ in policing the protocol.
A bigger role for the ECJ would stall any progress in solving the issue, as it would be unacceptable for both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – which is currently staging a boycott of the Stormont Assembly in protest of the protocol – and for many in the right wing of the Tory Party.
A Conservative Party insider told the Daily Express that there is “no way” the DUP would accept any further concessions on the ECJ’s role, beyond the ability to rule on cases only if referred by the Northern Irish Courts.
They said the ECJ is the “crux” of the dispute with the European Union, and an agreement acceptable to the DUP would be essential for any solution to be found.
“This is about sovereignty and the constitution”, the source added.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is expected to give a statement in the House of Commons on the issue tomorrow.
According to the Times, the customs element of the deal had been due to be announced last month but was pulled at the last minute.
One source told the paper that Brussels was concerned Mr Sunak could not sell the complete package to the DUP and Brexiteers in his own party.
The customs agreement is understood to largely be based around a system of green and red lanes, with goods destined for Northern Ireland allowed in without routine checks.
Meanwhile, goods for export to the Republic of Ireland would undergo customs checks in Northern Irish ports.
The Government has stepped up its efforts to resolve issues with the Protocol in recent months, which have been ongoing since October 2021.
There has been no functioning devolved Government at Stormont since February 2022, with the DUP demanding fundamental change to the Protocol before it considers a return to the assembly.
The party has laid out seven tests that any deal on the protocol much meet in order for the party to end the stalemate.
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The insider said there is no chance that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson would budge on the seven tests, saying that to do so would be “electoral suicide”.
Mr Donaldson has described the Protocol as being the “greatest ever threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom”.
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