By David Lynch and Dominic McGrath, PA
The Government could consider changes to Northern Ireland’s governance if some in the unionist community do not accept Rishi Sunak’s deal with the EU, Chris Heaton-Harris has suggested.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said he is focused on clarifying details in the Windsor Framework for members of the Democratic Unionist Party and others who are still considering whether to support it, before looking at other steps forward.
Mr Heaton-Harris also said he hopes to be able to “cunningly persuade” Boris Johnson to back the deal in a Commons vote, replacing the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed by the former prime minister.
Mr Johnson has publicly criticised the deal, claiming he would find it “very hard” to support.
The Windsor Framework agreed by Mr Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last week is the Prime Minister’s bid to solve the deadlock caused by the protocol.
The change in Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements would make sure goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland do not have to undergo regulatory checks, in an attempt to eliminate the effective Irish Sea border.
The DUP is currently considering whether to back the new deal, as is the Eurosceptic alliance of backbench Tory MPs the European Research Group.
Both groups are concerned about EU jurisdiction in Northern Ireland under the new deal.
Ministers have insisted the “Stormont brake” in the agreement would give MLAs a say over whether new EU laws would apply in Northern Ireland.
Asked by Sky News what would happen if the DUP does not back the deal, Mr Heaton-Harris said he is working to “clarify all the questions” from the unionist community.
He added: “I would like to think that at that point we will be able to get the executive up and running, but I have already, in fact last week we were passing legislation through Parliament, the Executive Formation Act, which allows me to have the opportunity to call elections at any point during the next year should that be required.
“There are other routes forward, and we need to do things on governance if that is the case.
“However, I am a glass half full man, I believe we can get this right. The Windsor Framework is an amazing leap forward. I do think it actually delivers on all the questions that have been asked.”
Pressed on whether he would put a timeframe on another Stormont election, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I have learned from previous lessons in Northern Ireland that you don’t set timeframes, and even if you have one in your mind you would never give it publicly.”
Asked about Mr Johnson’s criticism of the Windsor Framework, the senior Cabinet minister said: “I was his chief whip so I’d like to think by the time we get to vote I’d have cunningly persuaded him that he actually needs to vote for the deal.
“Boris is a law unto himself in many ways. But he is a great man, a wise man, an honest man, and I believe he will come to see that it is a good idea.”
Mr Heaton-Harris also suggested the framework would allow Northern Ireland to fully feel the benefits of any future UK trade deals.
“I think we can,” he responded when asked if he could guarantee businesses and people in Northern Ireland would be full participants in future trade agreements.
While Mr Heaton-Harris remained positive about convincing the DUP, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill suggested future governance in Northern Ireland could involve a joint arrangement between the UK and Irish governments if the unionist party does not return to Stormont.
“I still hope that they will get to that point, because powersharing is how politics works in the north,” she added.