UK Government reassures DUP on NI’s status amid concerns over Supreme Court ruling

The Government will seek to allay the DUP’s concerns about a Supreme Court ruling on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of efforts to persuade the party to join their new Brexit deal.

Northern Ireland’s Chris Heaton-Harris insisted the form of the Windsor Framework Agreement the UK had struck with the EU is in the “right space” but said the Government could take other measures to reassure trade unionists who are always still had doubts about the new proposals for Irish sea trade.

Mr Heaton-Harris is currently in Washington DC with political leaders from across the island of Ireland for traditional St Patrick’s Day engagements.

The DUP is currently blocking decentralization at Stormont in protest at trade barriers between the UK and NI created by Brexit’s controversial Northern Ireland Protocol.

While the party says the Windsor Framework did a way to address their concerns about the protocol, it says it doesn’t address some “fundamental issues”.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, also in Washington, is now asking for further clarity and reassurances from the UK government to address his party’s lingering concerns.

Sir Jeffrey told the PA news agency his party needed to see the shape of the government’s planned legislation before making a final decision on the framework.

The Government has already pledged to legislate to reinforce Northern Ireland’s place within the UK by amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

It also intends to pass legislation to give effect to the ‘Stormont brake’ mechanism within the Windsor Framework, which would allow a minority of MLAs in Stormont to formalize concerns about the introduction of new EU legislation in Northern Ireland — a move that could see the government veto its introduction in the region.

Secretary of Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald at the 31st National Fund of Ireland Gala at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC during the Taoiseach’s visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day (Niall Carson/PA)

On attempts to secure Northern Ireland’s status within the UK, Mr Heaton-Harris said the Government could deal with issues arising from last month’s ruling by Britain’s highest court.

In February, the Supreme Court dismissed an action brought by a collective of unionized politicians who argued that the domestic legislation underpinning the Northern Ireland Protocol was inconsistent with the Union Acts of 1800 which formed the United Kingdom, particularly Article 6 of that statute, which allowed the unhindered Trade within Northern Ireland guaranteed UNITED KINGDOM.

The Supreme Court found that while Article 6 of the Union Act was “amended” by the Protocol, it was done with the express will of a sovereign parliament and was therefore lawful.

The DUP and other union leaders have highlighted the ruling as evidence that the Brexit deal has subjugated the provisions of the Acts of Union and thereby undermined Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.

In an interview with the PA news agency in Washington, Mr Heaton-Harris said the DUP was right to seek assurances from the government.

“We made the deal with the European Union and I think most people believe that part of the deal is in the right place,” he said.

“But there are certain things that emerge from the Supreme Court ruling not long ago, in which we can say a little more about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and how parts of the Windsor framework will actually work in practice, and you are right. Questions to the UK Government we hope we can answer correctly.”

Mr Heaton-Harris added: “Politicians in Northern Ireland are rightly asking the right questions about how the Windsor framework will work, how it will benefit all communities in Northern Ireland, how it will benefit businesses in Northern Ireland, how it will benefit Northern Ireland to which place in the Union makes something more certain for the coming future. How it works with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which it absolutely does. Those are the right questions.”

The Northern Ireland secretary said the government does not want to get the DUP to accept the framework but said he remains optimistic about a “positive outlook” for the deal.

“The union community that I know has felt drawn into things in the past and we absolutely don’t want to do that this time,” he said.

“We want people to come to an informed opinion. My personal opinion is that this considered view will be a positive outlook on the Windsor framework and I am very interested in people asking questions about what the Windsor framework actually entails because they are the right questions , which should be asked, and I hope that I will answer them in great detail.”

Sir Jeffrey said any legislation should restore Northern Ireland’s rights under the Acts of Union.

“I came to Washington with a very clear message that while the Windsor framework represents significant progress, there is still a long way to go and that is why we need to see the legislation,” he said.

“We need to see what the UK Government intends to do in relation to the implementation of this framework to ensure it adequately protects Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and restores our rights under Article 6 of Union law.”

In an interview with PA he added: “I think we need to see the legislation in the context of the Windsor framework because the framework is an outline, what we need is the details, the legal text, the legislation that’s actually implemented will enable us to ensure that Northern Ireland adequately protects its place within the UK and its internal market.”

Last week Mr Heaton-Harris suggested the Government would be “obliged” to veto any legislation if the Stormont braking element of the new Windsor Accord were activated.

Some Stormont parties have raised concerns about whether his comments suggest the brake will give a powerful veto to a minority of MLAs.

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