Prime Minister says 'unanimous' focus is on the future - but Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says there is more to do

The Prime Minister says Northern Ireland has “unanimously” moved beyond the Irish Sea border dispute and parties are now focused on day-to-day issues – despite Sir Jeffrey Donaldson saying that more work needs to be done.
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It comes amid a clear difference of emphasis between the DUP and the government on trade divergence – with ministers stating that Great Britain will be able to move rules and regulations away from EU standards, which are applicable in Northern Ireland.

Yesterday, the News Letter asked the Prime Minister about Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s view that there is more to do; whether he believes there is more room for movement from the government; and whether there is still a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

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Rishi Sunak said: "I’m very confident that on the basis of all the meetings I’ve had this morning, yesterday, people are looking forward. They’re not looking backwards. They see this as a really important moment for the people of Northern Ireland. The Executive is back up and running after a long time of working through people’s concerns, making sure that we could address those – and I believe we have. And that’s why you’ve seen the Executive restored.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving Glencraig Integrated Primary School in Holywood this morning. Photo: David Thompson, National WorldPrime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving Glencraig Integrated Primary School in Holywood this morning. Photo: David Thompson, National World
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving Glencraig Integrated Primary School in Holywood this morning. Photo: David Thompson, National World

"And now actually the focus is not on any of those things, the focus – consistently and unanimously – is on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland and that means specifically on the day to day issues of public services like the NHS. That’s what everyone’s focus is on right now. On the basis of all the meetings I’ve had today and yesterday I’m confident that there is unanimity that that needs to be and should be the focus. That’s very much been the tone, positive tone, of all the conversations I’ve had today”.

The PM was speaking to journalists at Glencraig Integrated Primary School in Holywood, County Down. He was visiting as part of a series of meetings following the return of the Stormont institutions.

Yesterday, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC that Emma Little Pengelly would continue in her role as deputy first minister while he continued to negotiate. The DUP leader said: “of course whilst we have been successful in our negotiations in bringing about a change to restore our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market, there is more to do. The implementation of this agreement is very important”.

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The DUP believes the deal struck with the government stops trade divergence between Northern Ireland. Both Chris Heaton-Harris and the NIO minister Steve Baker say that the government retains the right to diverge .

The NI Secretary told MPs last week that “Ministers in charge of such bills will need to provide… a written ministerial statement to Parliament as to whether a bill would have significant adverse effect on trade between Northern Ireland and another part of the United Kingdom. And if the legislation does carry that significant adverse effect of course the House would expect the minister to set out any steps to be taken in response to this assessment”.

Rishi Sunak also said yesterday: "We have worked very hard, and I believe, succeeded in protecting Northern Ireland's place in our union and building on what we achieved with the Windsor Framework to ensure the smooth flow of trade within the United Kingdom. And to ensure all the benefits that are there as a result of Brexit can be seized."That's the deal that we struck, that's what the Windsor Framework delivers, that's what all our conversations have been and I am confident that not only will people start to see the benefits of that very quickly, but crucially now with the Executive up and running, the democratic safeguards that we negotiated as part of the Windsor Framework can now actually be used”.

The problem for unionists in the scenario that the UK government decides to diverge on regulatory standards is that it could potentially create more trade barriers in the Irish Sea – while Sinn Fein seek to use the Windsor Framework to advance an all-Ireland economy.

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Yesterday, the TUV leader Jim Allister said: “the first major wheel has come off the Donaldson deal. This morning the Secretary of State very unabashed told us that divergence by Great Britain will continue. So much for the empty promises of the command paper and Sir Jeffrey’s spin. Northern Ireland therefore faces not just alignment with the Republic but divergence from GB”.

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