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UK sets out new trade measures to restore Northern Ireland government

british secretary of state for northern ireland heaton harris delivers a statement to media members near houses of parliament in london
British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Heaton-Harris REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain unveiled a package of post-Brexit trading measures on Wednesday to strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, a move welcomed by local politicians who are now expected to restore a power-sharing government.

After almost two years of a power vacuum in Northern Ireland, the regional government might be within days of returning, restoring a key part of a 1998 peace deal that ended decades of political and sectarian violence.

Introducing the measures to parliament, Northern Ireland minister Chris Heaton-Harris described the package as a “comprehensive deal” for all sides to settle the concerns among unionists in Northern Ireland over the post-Brexit settlement.

“With this package, it’s now time for elected representatives in Northern Ireland to come together to end the two years of impasse and start work again in the interest of the people who elected them,” Heaton-Harris told parliament.

Parliament would debate to approve the proposed new measures on Thursday, he said.

The most important step in resuming the power-sharing government in Stormont had been to win over the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the region’s largest pro-British party.

It had argued that London’s Brexit deal with the European Union undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom by demanding checks on some goods coming from Britain, a move, the DUP said, that had effectively put a border in the Irish Sea.

By saying it would introduce legislation to “copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional place in the Union”, alongside a 3.3 billion pound ($4.2 billion) financial package, the British government won the party over.

The European Union has told London that it would carefully analyse the package, the British government said following a call between Foreign Secretary David Cameron and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said his government had not seen any “red flags” in the proposals so far.

CRITICISM

In the early hours of Tuesday, the DUP said it had endorsed the proposals after the party had spent months holding out for a better deal from the London government.

“Today’s agreement, I believe is a positive and decisive step forward for Northern Ireland,” Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, told journalists in Belfast. “We have made our decisions… We are moving along.”

Sammy Wilson, a DUP lawmaker, complained in parliament that there would still be “EU-manned border posts” in Northern Ireland, but he stopped short of criticising his party leader.

The DUP’s much smaller rival, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), rejected the deal, saying in a statement that “none of what was promised has been achieved”.

But such views appeared unlikely to derail the restoration of the power-sharing government, which the DUP says can take place after the legislation is passed.

The restoration of regional government is a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to end three decades of violence between Irish nationalists, who want a united Ireland, and unionists, who support British rule.

The proposed measures include eliminating any physical checks when goods move within the so-called UK internal market system, meaning Britain and Northern Ireland, and that more than 80% of all freight movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be treated as “not at risk”.

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