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The DUP is not expected to decide whether to back Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit agreement with the EU until April at the earliest, after setting up a special group to scrutinise the deal.
The unionist party revealed that a special panel will take several weeks to examine the details of the Windsor Framework, which is aimed at drawing a line under the Northern Ireland protocol row.
Sir Jeffrey made clear that the DUP will take its time to consider the deal before deciding whether to back it, lift its blockade of devolution and return to power-sharing with Sinn Fein at Stormont.
He said the eight-member panel – which includes former DUP leaders and first ministers Peter Robinson and Baroness Arlene Foster – would only report back to him by the end of March.
“This work will be undertaken in parallel with our on-going engagement with the UK government,” Sir Jeffrey said. “The group will comprise both members of our party as well as independent thinkers who have standing within the broader community.”
Amid reported DUP splits on whether to back the deal, Sir Jeffrey said group would engage with a “broad section of the unionist and loyalist community” as well as the business sector and civic society.
Mr Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the deal last week after months of intensive negotiations aimed at reducing checks on Irish Sea trade.
The deal contains a new mechanism – the so-called “Stormont brake” – that offers members of the Northern Ireland assembly the ability to refer to the UK government its concerns about the introduction of new EU laws.
The Sunak government has said it holds the power to “veto” the application of new goods laws. But prominent DUP figures have made clear they believed the deal does not go far enough to address sovereignty concerns.
Sammy Wilson, a senior DUP MP, said the brake “is not really a brake at all” since the UK government is likely to be reluctant to veto EU laws. Fellow DUP MP Ian Paisley Jnr said “gut instinct” told him the deal “doesn’t cut the mustard”.
Although Sir Jeffrey is thought to be keen to return to power-sharing at Stormont, he is also under pressure from rival unionist parties like Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), who have firmly opposed the new protocol deal.
Meanwhile, Tory hardliners in the European Research Group have said they will take a fortnight to study the deal. While Labour will help the deal get through the Commons, a rebellion by dozens of backbench Brexiteers which forced Mr Sunak to rely on Sir Keir Starmer could undermine his authority.
No 10 refused to be drawn on when MPs will get a say on Mr Sunak’s deal – but made clear that the timing of a showdown Commons vote would not depend on the unionist party.
The PM’s official spokesman said: “We do want to give individual groups, including the DUP, the time to look at this. We are not simply waiting just for one group to report back.”
He added: “We need to strike the right balance between giving people the time and ensuring we give the people of Northern Ireland the certainty that they require. We do want to keep talking to the DUP and other groups and stand ready to answer any questions they have.”
Despite the potential drama ahead at Westminster, the future of devolution in Northern Ireland rests on whether the DUP agree to go back into power-sharing in Belfast.
London, Brussels and Washington are all keen to see the institutions restored ahead of next month’s landmark 25th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement.
The members of the panel are DUP MP Carla Lockhart, DUP peer Lord Weir, former DUP leaders Mr Robinson and Baroness Foster, businessman Ross Reed, lawyer John McBurney and DUP MLAs Brian Kingston and Deborah Erskine.