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'New chapter': UK PM Sunak strikes Northern Ireland deal with EU

Kitco News

LONDON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has struck a new deal with the European Union on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and he said it would pave the way for a new chapter in London's relationship with the bloc.

Standing alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a news conference in Windsor, Sunak said the two sides had agreed to ease trade rules for the British province and give its lawmakers more control over the laws they have to follow.

"I'm pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough," Sunak said, adding that they had agreed to change the original deal for Northern Ireland, known as the protocol, to create the "New Windsor Framework".

"This is the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship."

The issue has been one of the most contentious regarding Britain's departure from the European Union in 2020.

Northern Ireland, a British province, had an open border with Ireland, an EU member. Any return to a hard border could have jeopardised the 1998 peace deal which mostly ended three decades of sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland.

For Sunak, the agreement marks a high-risk strategy just four months after he took office. He is looking to secure a compromise and improve relations with Brussels - and the United States - without sufficiently angering the wing of his party most wedded to Brexit.

The success of the deal is likely to hinge on whether it convinces the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to end its boycott of Northern Ireland's power-sharing arrangements. These were central to the 1998 peace agreement.

Sunak is likely to talk up the fact he has secured what he described as a "Stormont brake", which he said would allow Stormont - the regional assembly - to stop any EU laws from applying in Northern Ireland on goods.

"If the break is pulled the UK government will have a veto," he said.

It remains to be seen whether the new terms will go far enough to end political deadlock in Northern Ireland and satisfy critics in Britain and the province.

Von der Leyen said the European Court of Justice would have the final say on European Union law and single market issues.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking before news of an agreement emerged, said they would take time to look at the details before deciding whether to accept it.

The European Research Group, which brings together pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, have also said they will study the details before giving their verdict, a process that could take days.

Victory would strengthen Sunak's hold over his Conservative Party and enable him to move past the most contentious issue on his agenda as he seeks to catch up with the opposition Labour Party, now well ahead in opinion polls, before a national election expected in 2024.

Were he to fail, he would probably face a rebellion from the eurosceptic wing of his party, reviving the deep ideological divisions that have at times paralysed the government since the vote to leave the EU in 2016.

Sunak could have left the standoff unresolved, but officials in London and Belfast say he has been motivated to act ahead of the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which could entail a visit from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Biden, who often speaks with pride of his Irish roots, has expressed concern about the stand-off in the province. U.S. officials had previously warned that any action which endangered the Good Friday Agreement could harm the prospects of a US-UK trade deal.

Sunak is hoping that a successful outcome will improve cooperation with the EU in areas beyond Northern Ireland, including the regulation of financial services, scientific research and help to stem an influx of migrants in small boats across the Channel.

As part of its exit agreement, Britain signed an accord with Brussels known as the Northern Ireland protocol to avoid imposing politically contentious checks along the 500-km (310-mile) land border with Ireland.

But the protocol effectively created a border for some goods moving from Britain because it kept Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods. That also left Northern Ireland subject to some EU rules even though it was not a member of the bloc.

Perceptions that the protocol erodes Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom have caused anger among many in unionist communities.

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