Hopes were raised on Tuesday that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) may not oppose Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson did not deny suggestions he was “cautiously positive” about the Windsor Framework agreement the Prime Minister struck with the EU.
He also hinted that the party’s main concerns revolved around whether Mr Sunak’s claims around the deal are “matched by what is actually in the agreement itself”, rather than the substance the Prime Minister unveiled on Monday.
Sir Jeffrey however was forced to deny that the DUP is split on the agreement, after MP Ian Paisley Jr said it “does not cut the mustard” and Westminster Chief Whip Sammy Wilson raised concerns.
A senior DUP source from the wing of the party regarded as more hardline however suggested the party was under pressure from its voters, and was expecting them to express their views in May’s local elections.
They also denied splits, telling i: “People interpret differences in style and presentation as a different view.”
On the DUP’s voters, they added: “Don’t forget we’ve got council elections coming up and while they are about councils, this thing about the Protocol will feature in them.”
But Sir Jeffrey was noticeably more emollient than others in his party on Tuesday, saying “at first reading” the so-called Stormont Brake does give unionists a veto over EU laws in Northern Ireland if they impact its position in the union of the UK – a key demand to address the “democratic deficit” experienced by the region post-Brexit.
The DUP leader stressed the party wanted to take time to study the legal text of the agreement, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re reasonable people but we want to ensure that what the Prime Minister has said is matched by what is actually in the agreement itself, can it deliver on the areas of concern that we set out in our seven tests?”
But he did not deny suggestions he was “cautiously positive” about the agreement, saying: “You may characterise what I am saying in the way you feel is appropriate.”
Sir Jeffrey also insisted there was “absolutely not” a split in the party over the Windsor Framework.
“Of course, there will be a diversity and a range of views,” he said.
“People will react in different ways. But the DUP will come to a collective decision on this agreement.”
Responding, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It is certainly welcome that Jeffrey Donaldson recognises the importance of the brake as something that restores the democratic deficit.
“He has been very clear, understandably, that the DUP wants to take the time before passing judgment on the framework.”
The spokesman said that the Government “fully respects” that.
It came as Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie urged the DUP to drop its boycott of powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland while parties study the deal.
“If we drag this out for months then businesses will be sitting there not knowing whether they are coming or going,” he said.
“There is no point dragging it out. People need to show the courage of their convictions, look at the deal, come up with your analysis and make your pitch.”