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Starmer offers Sunak ‘political cover’ to clinch EU deal on Northern Ireland

Starmer offers Sunak ‘political cover’ to clinch EU deal on Northern Ireland

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, will urge Rishi Sunak to face down Tory Eurosceptics on Friday and clinch a deal with the EU that would end a damaging row over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

In a speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, where Starmer held a day of talks with local political parties on Thursday, he will promise “political cover” to the prime minister in his efforts to break the deadlock.

Starmer’s offer was part of a rapidly intensifying diplomatic push to try to reach an agreement before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement in April.

“Whatever political cover you need, whatever mechanism in Westminster you require, if it delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland, we will support you,” he will say.

He sees a “small window” to resolve the row over the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, arguing that Tory MPs in the European Research Group should be sidelined.

“The time for action on the protocol is now — the time to stand up to the ERG is now,” he will say. “The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult, which can never be satisfied, is now.”

Sunak remains wary of the ERG, a well-organised bloc in the party, and is unlikely to press ahead with any deal that would rely on Labour votes to get it through the House of Commons.

But Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach, said a deal on the protocol “still may not be enough” to restore the region’s power-sharing government.

Varadkar had talks in Belfast with local parties, as Starmer, Ireland’s foreign minister and the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland all visited the region.

The meetings, a day after UK foreign secretary James Cleverly’s held talks in Belfast, are part of a rapidly intensifying diplomatic push to try to reach an agreement before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday deal in April.

Regional institutions have been paralysed for months after the Democratic Unionist Party, the region’s largest pro-UK political force, pulled out over its objections to the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.

The DUP is demanding an end both to the Irish Sea customs border for goods entering the region from Britain and to any oversight of the arrangements by the European Court of Justice.

A tentative deal on data-sharing was agreed by London and Brussels this week and was hailed as the first tangible breakthrough in the acrimonious dispute.

Representatives from London and Brussels will meet again on Monday to assess progress and next steps, but Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, dismissed as “speculation” on Thursday suggestions that negotiators were finally preparing for intensive talks — dubbed the negotiating ‘tunnel’ — on substantive issues around trade in the region.

Micheál Martin, Ireland’s foreign minister who was also in Belfast for talks with Heaton-Harris, welcomed progress but said the issues outstanding “are very challenging and complex”.

London published draft legislation on Thursday to set up agrifood border posts in Northern Irish ports for goods entering the region from Britain. In the event of a deal, they could be used to separate and process goods destined to remain in the region or go on to the Republic of Ireland.

Varadkar, who helped push the protocol over the line in talks in 2019 with Boris Johnson, UK prime minister at the time, said the EU was ready to make “the changes that are necessary”. However, he acknowledged that any deal struck by London and Brussels may still prove unpalatable to the DUP.

An agreement “could unlock the possibility of re-establishing the executive and the assembly, but it’s not a guarantee,” he said.

Written by Kristel Haire