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New Brexit deal nears as Northern Ireland deadlock comes to an end

A mural in Belfast depicting Rishi Sunak. The Prime Minister has been working to bring the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol to an end – Liam McBurney/PA

A new Brexit deal is expected to be announced in the next fortnight after the UK watered down its hardline resistance to European judges ruling on issues in Northern Ireland.

Sources close to the talks have indicated to The Telegraph that an agreement to end the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol is set to be revealed within two weeks.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, is due to speak to some European leaders later this week, with next week initially penciled in by UK negotiators as the date for announcement.

The broad shape of the deal has now become clear, according to two sources from the European Union and two in the UK, with final sign-off still to come from Number 10.

Under the plan, goods traveling from the mainland UK destined only for Northern Ireland will not face physical customs checks thanks to a new system of “red” and “green” lanes.

Role of the European Court of Justice

One of the most sensitive areas of agreement, about the exact role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland, is likely to be presented differently by the EU and UK.

Sources in Brussels believe the agreement will show that the ECJ will be the ultimate arbiter of disputes about EU law that emerge from Northern Ireland.

UK sources close to the deal are insisting that the vast majority of legal clashes about trade in Northern Ireland will not involve the ECJ, playing up the role of the province’s own judges.

But the UK Government is no longer insisting that the ECJ must not be the ultimate arbiter on EU law issues in Northern Ireland. That had been the UK position under Liz Truss and for much of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

New language stressing that the ECJ will only be used as a court of last resort is expected in a joint EU-UK statement when the deal is announced, according to multiple UK and EU sources.

There is also a belief among UK government figures familiar with negotiations that the deal would mean Downing Street effectively drops the Northern Ireland Protocol Billwhich is still going through Parliament.

The legislation in its early form passed the House of Commons but has been put on pause ahead of an expected clash in the House of Lords, where the Tories do not have a majority.

Successive Tory governments have said that a negotiated settlement was preferable to the Bill, which would give the UK the powers to change trading rules without an EU agreement.

The legislation is likely to be indefinitely paused after the deal is negotiatedeven if Downing Street insists it could theoretically one day be brought back, according to one UK source.

The role of the ECJ and the passing of the Protocol Bill have been championed by Conservative Eurosceptics and are being closely watched.

Downing Street insiders stressed that elements of the final package are still moving, but did not deny that the announcement of the deal was expected soon.

A government spokesman said: “Intensive talks between UK and EU technical teams are ongoing, with more talks due on potential solutions across all areas.”

Rishi Sunak heavily involved in Brexit deal

UK figures involved in the talks have noted how involved Mr Sunak and Downing Street have been heavily involved in the process, rather than leaving it to the departments theoretically in charge.

It echoes the Prime Minister’s approach to other issues deemed most pressing, including how to bring down the number of small boats carrying migrants across the English Channel.

Sir Tim Barrow, who was made the national security adviser in September, has become the point person for negotiations, according to sources, spending a lot of time in Brussels.

Sir Tim has a permanent office in the UK mission in Brussels and is often accompanied on trips with Treasury officials, according to Brussels sources.

The The Northern Ireland Protocol was struck between the UK and the EU to govern the terms of trade in the province after Brexit.

To keep the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland open, the deal effectively created a customs border for goods traveling from the mainland UK into the province.

One of the major political challenges for Downing Street will be squaring off Eurosceptics on the Tory back benches and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

The European Research Group of Tory MPs is “in lockstep” with the Unionists in Northern Ireland over the need to eliminate all border checks and remove EU law from the province.

Both groups have warned No 10 they are alive to any attempts to pursue a divide and conquer strategy by claiming the other is willing to accept a softer stance.

An ERG source said cross-party contacts had reassured the Unionists of their support and Tory backbenchers that the DUP will not “go wobbly” when presented with a deal.

“The Government was constantly trying to play us off against each other last time, so we know how all that works,” said the source.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leaderhas insisted that his party “is not prepared to tolerate a situation where we are treated like an EU colony”.

He has warned that Unionists can only accept an agreement that ends the “democratic deficit” and gives Belfast a say over the rules that govern it.

“We have tried to explain this to ministers again and again and they keep faffing around about some kind of arbitration system,” said one Tory MP.

Brexiteers could reopen old wounds

Earlier this month senior Brexiteers, led by veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, relaunched a 1990s campaign group to hold the Prime Minister to account on Brexit.

Members of the European Foundation, founded to support the Maastricht rebellion, vowed to push for the “full restoration of Northern Ireland as part of a sovereign UK”.

There are thought to be around 30 regular members of the ERG, around 10 short of the number that would be needed to overturn the Government’s majority.

But if they fiercely opposed a deal, it would reopen old wounds within the party and threaten to end Mr Sunak’s premiership in a fresh round of Brexit battles in the Commons.

Micheal Martin, the Irish deputy prime minister, insisted on Monday that EU negotiators “fully understand” the strength of Unionist concerns about any deal.

He also warned that Brussels would be unlikely to agree to reopen any agreement should it prove unsatisfactory “given the energy and effort” that has gone into the talks.

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