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Artillery Row

The government is failing Northern Ireland

Its reputation will be stained forever by the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework

Last night, the DUP summoned its one-hundred-and-thirty-strong executive to a country estate just outside Lisburn. The party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, set out his interpretation of a proposed deal with the government, which was apparently negotiated six weeks ago.

That offer on the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework has not yet been made public, and indeed a text was not presented to the members, but its contents previously leaked to the Daily Telegraph and more details emerged last night.

Two years ago, the DUP quit the devolved institutions at Stormont because it was forced to implement an Irish Sea border. After last night’s meeting, it was set to return to power-sharing, with internal UK trade barriers still in place and the Windsor Framework unchanged. The event was long and supposedly chaotic, but in the early hours of the morning, Donaldson claimed that his executive had agreed to the offer, though he did not reveal the result of the vote, subject to ministers at Westminster delivering a timetable and legislation.  

While Sir Jeffrey will say that this deal is an achievement, it looks a lot like his strategy has failed and he is changing his approach. The Tory government, while it has outwitted the DUP, can hardly claim much credit or satisfaction from its recent conduct on Northern Ireland either.

Through its part in this fiasco, the Conservative and Unionist party has arguably done more damage to the Union that it purports to cherish than any previous administration. At least three prime ministers, after claiming implacable opposition to Irish Sea trade barriers, agreed to drive a border through their own country, to placate EU bureaucrats and Irish separatists.

As the DUP hesitated over the government’s offer these past weeks, ministers were reportedly “exasperated” with Donaldson and his team, claiming to have offered the party “the moon and more”. If that frustration was genuine rather than purely demonstrative, they must have brass necks.

Relatively recently, people in Northern Ireland were being slaughtered by the IRA for defending British sovereignty. Who could have anticipated that, in a part of the UK whose status was so fiercely attacked, handing legal authority over swathes of life to a foreign power, and cutting it off from national political and economic life, would prove destabilising and controversial?

Far from being intractable and unreasonable, the DUP has too often been naive and gullible in the face of the government’s scheming.

In December 2017, it eventually endorsed a deal brokered by Theresa May, that committed to retain European law in Northern Ireland to avoid an Irish land border. Eventually that commitment became the hated Brexit backstop.

Now, you will see claims from the likes of May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell on Twitter, or Rory Stewart in his vainglorious memoir, that the backstop was a clever way of avoiding checks or infrastructure at the Irish Sea. The DUP is ridiculed regularly for refusing to support the former prime minister, as she failed to guide her Withdrawal Bill through parliament in 2019. What these commentators don’t acknowledge is that the backstop was designed specifically to kick-in if Great Britain diverged from single market rules and customs arrangements. In that scenario, the EU demanded a sea border just as damaging and disruptive as the one we have today. 

Theresa May’s minority government was propped up by a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. An early change of administration, and a new attitude to Europe, was not just a remote possibility but an overwhelming likelihood.

May’s agreement included practically every feature of the protocol that the DUP later opposed, but as an imminent threat rather than an immediate prospect. The idea that the party should have supported it because something swifter and more drastic might follow is a staggeringly un-self-conscious example of being wise in retrospect.

While it opposed the backstop, the DUP eventually endorsed Boris Johnson’s cynical suggestion that it was okay to have a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, so long as customs checks weren’t required. And, even after that slippery PM agreed to a customs border too, Sir Jeffrey told the BBC that it might represent an opportunity for businesses in Northern Ireland and dismissed the idea that it carried constitutional implications.  

The party’s weak response to the protocol was a prominent factor in the coup that unseated its former leader, Arlene Foster. Only after her departure, and some historically poor opinion poll results, did the DUP stiffen its strategy under Donaldson, when Paul Givan resigned as first minister and effectively collapsed Stormont.

Sir Jeffrey now wants to claim that this gambit produced results, first by persuading the government to re-open the protocol and negotiate the Windsor Framework with the EU; then by forcing Rishi Sunal to make concessions and a new offer, last night apparently accepted by the DUP.

In reality, the framework entrenched rather than removed the Irish Sea border. An influential House of Lords’ report last year confirmed that, in many regards, it had made the situation worse, by abolishing grace periods that had to that point kept groceries, parcels and medicines flowing into Northern Ireland.

The government’s latest deal, too, seems to be a nothing sandwich, unless the legislation contains much more than we expect. 

Extra money will pour into the gaping abyss that is Stormont’s finances, the “green lane” that allows some goods to move from GB with less friction will be tweaked and Sunak has pledged to “screen” UK legislation so that it doesn’t make matters even worse, by creating new legal differences between Northern Ireland and GB.

That, at least, might seem like a meaningful undertaking, except that it is the relentlessness of EU law that drives most divergence between British rules and those in the single market (which NI is forced to follow). If this offer was meaningful, it would include some form of dynamic alignment that ties the whole UK to Brussels’ laws now and in the future. 

A promise of that type would surely be Sunak’s quickest route out of the Conservative leadership. Many of his Tory colleagues would view it as a betrayal of Brexit and one that did not, in any case, make the sea border disappear.

So, a deal with the DUP is in the offing and the hopelessly ineffectual power-sharing government at Stormont will probably be coming back. The protocol and the framework, though, will remain an everlasting stain on this government’s reputation and a reminder that it abrogated its responsibility to govern all its national territory.

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