RISHI Sunak has been pressed to explain why EU single market access is good for Northern Ireland but is being denied to the rest of the UK by Brexit.

Appearing tetchy and uncomfortable at PMQs, the Prime Minister accused SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn of "playing politics" for even asking the question.

He said it was "disappointing" that he had done so.

On Monday, the PM signed the Windsor Framework with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The changes are intended to simplify the post-Brexit trading arrangements for the province, cutting checks on goods between GB and NI, and creating a possible veto on new EU laws.

To avoid a hard border with the Irish republic, Northern Ireland has a unique status in the UK, with access to the EU single market as well as the UK internal market.

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In a bid to sell the deal to sceptical Unionists and Tory MPs, Mr Sunak visited County  Antrim yesterday, where he said the deal would create “the world’s most exciting economic zone”.

He said: ““If we get this right, if we get this framework implemented, if we get the Executive back up and running here, Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position – unique position in the entire world, European continent – in having privileged access, not just to the UK home market, which is enormous, but also the European Union single market.

“Nobody else has that. No-one. Only you guys: only here, and that is the prize.”

It led to questions about why Mr Sunak was championing Brexit if staying in the EU single market was such a bonus.

The Herald:

At PMQs, Mr Flynn quoted the PM’s description of single market access as “special, exciting and attractive” before adding: “If that's the case, why is he denying it to the rest of us?”

Mr Sunak replied: “It's disappointing that the honourable gentleman is seeking to play politics with the situation in Northern Ireland. 

“Northern Ireland, as he well knows, has a unique place in the United Kingdom. 

“And what we are trying to do is restore the balance inherent in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and he would do well to acknowledge that.”

But Mr Flynn went on: “Let's be clear. What the Prime Minister said yesterday was that EU single market access will be a good thing for business

“Now of course that's in contrast to the leader of the Labour Party, who said in December that EU single market access would not boost economic growth.

“Does it hurt the Prime Minister to know that the Labour Party believe in Brexit more than he does?”

Asmid laughter from MPs, Mr Sunak, an enthusiastic Leave supporter, again refused to engage in the wider question about the merit of Brexit.

He said: “With regard to Northern Ireland, the important thing to note is to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland between North and South. 

“That is what is crucial to achieve in getting the right framework for the arrangements in Northern Ireland, and the businesses there that trade across that border on a daily basis with complex supply chains need and value that access.

“That is something that the Windsor Framework has sought to achieve and I believe delivers it. It's not that it's not about the macro issue of membership of the European Union. 

“It's about getting the right mechanisms in place to support businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. And I would say to the Honourable Gentleman, he knows better than that. “He knows that this is about Northern Ireland, and I hope that he can support what we've agreed.”

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Northern Ireland MP Colum Eastwood, leader of the Nationalist SDLP, also chided Mr Sunak, saying it was “great to hear the conversion that the Prime Minister has had on the benefits of the single market”. 

SNP MP Joanna Cherry KC also raised the special post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland and asked why it couldn’t also be applied to Scotland.

She said: “The Prime Minister has boasted that his new Brexit deal puts Northern Ireland in an unbelievably special position because it will have access to both the UK and the EU markets. And he said that this makes it the world's most exciting economic zone. 

“So my question for the Prime Minister is this: if there can be a very, very special status for the province of Northern Ireland, why can't there be a very very special status for the nation of Scotland?

Again refusing to engage with the substance of the question, Mr Sunak replied: “There is a very special status for the nation of Scotland and that's inside our United Kingdom.”