A senior Tory MP has dampened down the prospect of a Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, telling Sky News the powersharing crisis will not be resolved because the negotiations are “too narrow”.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, a veteran Eurosceptic, also suggested there should be a “customs frontier” between the north and south of Ireland to fix issues with the contentious protocol.
The mechanism was put in place as part of Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit deal to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which all sides agreed was necessary to preserve peace.
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But unionists are unhappy about the economic barriers it has created on trade being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, with a customs border effectively imposed in the Irish Sea – something the former prime minister promised would not happen.
Rishi Sunak has been battling to reach a new deal on the post-Brexit arrangements, but Sir Bernard played down suggestions a breakthrough could be days away.
Asked how close a deal is he said: “I fear not very close, because what’s been happening is the government has been strenuously trying to reach an agreement, but within very narrow confines.
“The EU has said they won’t consider reopening their mandate to look at new ways of approaching the whole question of Northern Ireland post-Brexit, and the consequence is that the negotiations have been on a very narrow mandate set by the EU and it doesn’t look as though the government can resolve the powersharing crisis with any deal that will emerge from these negotiations.“
The powersharing crisis relates to the ongoing protest by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Belfast of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The DUP argues the protocol compromises Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and has refused to co-operate with forming a devolved government in Stormont until it is abandoned or replaced.
There is also anger over the so-called “democratic deficit” caused by Northern Ireland still being subject to some EU rules so that goods can move freely into the Republic of Ireland – which the DUP and Tory MPs see as an erosion of the UK’s sovereignty and incompatible with the aims of Brexit.
Deal that doesn’t remove protocol ‘unconscionable’
Sir Bernard suggested the only way to restore powersharing – a founding principle of the Good Friday Agreement – was for the protocol to be axed and replaced with a trade border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
He said the government should revisit a ditched proposal from the 2020 negotiations for an “invisible north-south border”.
“The obvious answer is to go back to that proposal now that we have unlimited time, and aim towards creating a customs frontier between (Northern) Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but without actual checks or infrastructure at the border,” he said.
Sir Bernard used the fact there are no border checks on people to support his idea.
“It should not be too difficult to have a customs frontier without infrastructure,” he added.
Asked what that would mean for the Good Friday Agreement – which promised to keep the border open – Sir Bernard said it would “actually restore it”.
“The collapse of the Good Friday Agreement is an absolute catastrophe of political tensions arising. There’s nobody objecting in Northern Ireland to the border being in a different place or there being different arrangements to deal with this issue.”
Sir Bernard – a member of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs – went on to criticise Labour for suggesting they would support a deal without seeing the details first, saying it would be “unconscionable to sign an agreement with the EU that cements in place the protocol”.
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However, shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry doubled down on this position – saying Mr Sunak does not need to worry about the Eurosceptic factions of his party scuppering a deal if he brings an agreement forward to parliament for a vote.
“The prime minister can rely on us to support him,” she told Sky News.
“He doesn’t have to negotiate with his head-bangers in the Tory party who – I don’t know what they want – but whatever they want is not in the country’s interests.
“We need to come to a solution and the government can, if it’s in the interests of the country, rely on us.”
Ms Thornberry agreed there should not be a border in the Irish Sea – as is currently the case – but rather a “soft” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
She did not provide details on how this would work – rather just saying it would be “as soft” and “as discreet” as possible.
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Meanwhile, veterans affairs minister Johnny Mercer defended Mr Sunak’s approach, saying he had “good discussions last week with the European Union” and had “good engagement going on with other MPs”.
He told Sky News: “Let’s give the prime minister a chance to come out with something.
“He’s attacking this, he is throwing everything he can. He voted for and campaigned hard for Brexit, right?
“So he is not going to sell anyone out or come up with a solution that is unfair or doesn’t deliver on what he thinks is Brexit.”