The DUP will set up a “star chamber” of experts to help the party decide whether or not to back Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, denied that he was playing for time by setting up the eight strong panel, which includes Dame Arlene Foster, the former first minister and party leader turned GB News presenter.
The idea has echoes of a similar committee set up by the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteer backbenchers to evaluate the new Windsor Framework.
Sir Jeffrey said: “I have established a group to commence and undertake a wide consultation process within Northern Ireland, listening and taking views on the Framework document.”
He said in “broad terms” it was clear that “significant progress has been secured across a number of areas” in the new deal.
But he added there were “key issues of concern” and that there “can be no disguising the fact that in some sectors of our economy EU law remains applicable”.
The DUP leader believes in leaning towards accepting the deal and ending his party’s year-long boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly over the Protocol.
But Sir Jeffrey is struggling to contain divides in his party over the Windsor Framework, ahead of local elections in May.
Accepting the deal before the elections risks the DUP shedding more support to the hard-line Traditional Ulster Voice, which is virulently against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
A bad loss in May will relieve pressure on Sir Jeffrey after the DUP lost their status as the biggest party in Northern Ireland to Sinn Fein for the first time in the Stormont elections last May.
‘History teaches us’
Sir Jeffrey said the new panel would report back at the end of the month and inform the DUP’s decision-making process, but he insisted it was not a delaying tactic.
“History teaches us that it is always better to get the right outcome for Northern Ireland than a rushed one,” Sir Jeffrey said.
He added: “Our judgment and our principled position in opposing the Protocol in Parliament and at Stormont has been vindicated. Undoubtedly it is now recognized that the Protocol does not work.”
The DUP is split between MLAs, who favor a return to Stormont, and its peers and MPs in Westminster, who take a harder line.
“My view is that Jeffrey personally would be keen to do a deal,” Jim Wells, a former DUP Stormont minister, told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I think he would get the support of the Assembly party but I think he will have real problems with the Westminster group and, of course, the party’s central executive,” said Mr Wells, who quit the DUP after being deselected in 2022.
Sinn Fein MP John Finucane told BBC Radio Ulster that the DUP should not expect the UK and EU to improve the Windsor Framework and urged them to re-enter power sharing as soon as possible.