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A risk taken, UK's Sunak announces the Windsor Framework

FILE PHOTO: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gets off his plane after his arrival on February 18, 2023 at the airport in Munich

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Rishi Sunak took a risk when he decided to hold talks on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland in secret, offering few details beyond reassurance to two political groups which have a history of making life hard for prime ministers.

Sunak saw secrecy as crucial to restoring trust with the European Union after relations were tested to breaking point under predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who took a hard line and were accused of hurting talks by negotiating in public.

But it was secrecy that fostered suspicion among two big hitters in the years-long Brexit debate - the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland's biggest unionist party, and the pro-Brexit Conservative European Research Group (ERG).

With both groups saying they will now consider the detail of Monday's deal before offering a verdict, Sunak will hope the changes he has negotiated will overcome the sourness that has coloured the weeks-long build up to what he called a decisive breakthrough with the presentation of the "Windsor Framework".

"I am pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough, together we have changed the original protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor framework," Sunak told a news conference.

He said the deal would ease trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, firmly root the province's place in the United Kingdom and give lawmakers there a say in whether they must implement EU law, with London having a veto.

"I believe that today's framework addresses them (Northern Ireland's concerns) ... I believe that what we have achieved today is a real breakthrough."

The European Commission's president, Ursula von der Leyen, described the deal as an historic one which opened a "new chapter" in relations with Britain, praising "dear Rishi's" honesty in his dealings with the bloc.

'RATIONALITY IS BACK'

The tone of their joint press conference in Windsor, close to the monarch's castle, was a world away from the icy readouts posted on Twitter after talks were held with officials in the Johnson and Truss administrations.

Then both former leaders had threatened to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol with legislation in parliament and their administrations had regularly criticised the EU for being overly legalistic and inflexible.

Sunak, since becoming prime minister in October, has instead moved to repair ties with the bloc, spurred on by the closer cooperation between London and Brussels over the Ukraine conflict.

Pressing pause on the Northern Ireland Protocol bill which would all but rip up the earlier agreement, he saw solving the Northern Ireland standoff as a concrete "win" for his administration which has struggled to establish itself.

An official who worked in Downing Street said several prime ministers had put the protocol in "the possible wins category", something concrete a leader could do if they found themselves under fire - and Sunak has found himself under pressure over everything from strikes to tackling illegal immigration.

Britain's opposition Labour Party is way ahead in the opinion polls and several lawmakers say they are now focusing on local issues to seize any chance of retaining their seat in a national election expected next year.

He won immediate praise from Brussels.

"Rationality is back," Bernd Lange, head of the trade committee in the European Parliament, said on Twitter. "Much appreciated Realpolitik of Sunak instead of the showmanship & tactical games of the past."

OPPOSITION AT HOME?

But Sunak still has to win over not only some of his lawmakers in the ERG, but more importantly the DUP. One insider said the unionists fear they are seeing a repeat of 2017 when they had to mount opposition against a deal they did not like.

Then former prime minister Theresa May was pressing on with negotiations with the EU when she was forced to pause discussions to take a call from then DUP leader Arlene Foster, who said her party could not support May's plan.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking before news of an agreement emerged, said they would take time to look at the details before deciding whether to accept it. The ERG has also said they would study the details.

Sunak has been speaking to the DUP, and also the ERG who say they will follow what the unionist party decides, but some have felt they have been cut out of the talks only to be asked for their opinions at the very end of the process.

"I’m not opposed to him," said one Conservative Brexit-supporter. "I simply want him to do the right thing."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Kate Holton and Angus MacSwan)