Announcement of a possible Northern Ireland Protocol deal by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week, expected on Monday or Tuesday after shuttlecock visits by him to Belfast and Munich, was deferred after bombastic Boris Johnson’s intervention and signs of a mini Tory rebellion.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič tweeted on Monday, after an intensive phase of video negotiations with British Foreign Minister James Cleverley and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, that they will meet again face-to-face later this week.

A productive video call with @JamesCleverly and @chhcalling, taking stock of our work to find joint solutions to everyday concerns in Northern Ireland. Our 🔝 priority is to succeed for the benefit of all communities.

Hard work continues. We've agreed to meet later this week.

— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) February 20, 2023

That could be the showdown for Sunak to stand firm on his plan for a deal or be accused of weakness if he alters course in the face of the undecided Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Johnson-inspired hardline Brexiteer Tories.

A declaration by Johnson that Britain should retain plans to scrap the entire post-Brexit Protocol without reference to anybody including the European Union and Ireland was dismissed by the Sunday Times as a brass-necked attempt to foment trouble behind the scenes for Sunak.

It apparently succeeded to some extent. Although DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was encouraged by negotiations after talks on Friday with Sunak, another prominent party member said on Monday that there was still a long way to go.

Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, said he didn’t believe there would be a deal this week. He said if a deal was agreed that would impose laws made in Brussels on Northern Ireland, ministers in the Stormont Assembly would be required by law to implement the deal.

He told Sky News, “We are not going to do that.”

DUP MP Sammy Wilson tells #KayBurley his party would refuse to implement any deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol which is agreed without them.

He adds that 'such an arrangement is designed to take us out of the UK'.


📺 Sky 501 and Virgin 602

— Sky News (@SkyNews) February 20, 2023

The Sunday Times declared in an editorial that Johnson’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvring should be ignored. “A deal with the EU on the Protocol would be a significant win,” the paper said.

The hard-hitting editorial also took to task the DUP. It claimed the DUP’s blockage on a return to power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly was not only because of its principled objections to the Protocol but also because it had been usurped by Sinn Féin as Northern Ireland’s largest political party.

UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said over the weekend his party is set to support a Protocol deal between the EU and the UK if there is one and it goes to a vote in Westminster. That would put the DUP facing a bleak future if it doesn’t return to a power-sharing Stormont administration.

Although Sunak would be embarrassed by relying on Labour support if any Protocol deal goes to a vote, he is likely to win world acclaim for a successful breakthrough. However, he will still have to deal with a group of euro-skeptics, although their influence may be diminishing.

A DUP decision on a return to power-sharing devolution could take months rather than the days or weeks the Irish and British governments would like.

A threatened early Stormont election has been postponed until September next year. That gives the DUP plenty of time to take stock of its position, although both Dublin and London and the other political parties in Northern Ireland hope it will return to the power-sharing administration long before then.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is a post-Brexit deal designed to retain a soft trade border within the island of Ireland and to preserve the Good Friday Agreement, the 25th anniversary of which is in April.

*This column first appeared in the February 22 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.