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Artillery Row

The limits of Rishi Sunak’s words

Negotiations between the government and the DUP are riddled with problems

Getting there

Negotiations are entering their “final stages” between the United Kingdom Government and the Democratic Unionist Party over the tangled issues of Michael Gove’s border inside the UK, and whether Belfast Agreement-model devolution can be restored, given the harm the Windsor Framework has so comprehensively done to it.

These talks seek to remove the first blockage to devolution — the sea border. This emasculation of the UK internal market was to assuage the European Union (their pound of flesh for Brexit) and delight Irish nationalism (taking NI partly out of the UK market as a stepping-stone to its full removal). The second blockage is a lengthy list of public policy challenges any restored Assembly and Executive will face — and likely be unable to cope with on their own. This is especially problematic as most of these challenges were created by past devolved actions or inactions. In other words, simply restoring devolution just brings back how many of the problems were created in the first place.

Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework has failed to fly with those at whom it was supposedly aimed, and whose interests he claimed to protect. Sincerely trying to bring Stormont back meant making a real effort to repair the shattered confidence of unionism. This Sunak has not done.

With Sunak’s time in No.10 having so little to show for it, the “success” of the Windsor Framework is proclaimed in the hope that it becomes true. The deal itself was essentially what the EU had offered several months before, but rolling over and accepting a poor offer is no big deal. Sunak’s bogus settlement offered noticeably less than the grace periods Boris Johnson’s erratic brinkmanship had already delivered. Getting less than you had is pitiful, and being pleased with it is telling. 

Raise thine eyes, oh thran Ulsterman, and think of the national interest, some Tories and civil servants will whisper. The Windsor Framework has “cleared the air” and reset EU-UK relations. Any deal that requires doing over part of your own country may serve various interests, but it is hardly the national interest. Sunak’s folding has, in truth, done nothing to set some form of grand new bargain or rapprochement with Brussels. Even the FT has since admitted that there been no real reset.

The most lethal thing Sunak has done in giving in, and presenting that as a triumph, is conforming to the “failed Brexit” narrative — his deal being predicated on the myth that the deterioration in UK-EU relations was all our fault. Boris Johnson certainly made plenty of mistakes and was never shy about a swift betrayal or two. For instance, the former PM had crossed his fingers that his promise of a bodged deal now (2019/20) would be followed by our “fixing it later”. Thus, for example, the EU allowing the full use of flexibilities for a minimal border — or as Michel Barnier once described it, a “de-dramatised” border. These goals were set out in a command paper by Michael Gove and then he singularly failed to achieve any of them. The EU wanted a full fat border built inside the UK before they would even think of reducing it. Which meant Brussels could make minimal concessions, if any, from a position of great strength thanks to Gove. 

This deal was sold as “de-dramatisation,” but that did not mean a lesser border, just a demand people — particularly unionists — should accept it because the EU said so.

With no substance on offer the EU did give Sunak the space to spin the Windsor Framework. The lobby, as on top of technical detail as ever, lapped it up. A dysfunctional parliamentary Tory party also largely bought it — Sunak taking advantage of the fractured right, as he did to become Prime Minister in the first place. The attempt to spin the DUP in advance had fallen flat and they sensibly waited for the EU to produce their perspective. The EU’s truths exposed Sunak’s spin, but the press and most Tory MPs looked the other way. The job was done, and deeply boring: let us move on. Yet the deal was and is unworkable, and the spin that sold it only goes to point that up.

An example of the hype from Number 10 was the “Stormont Brake”. This was meant to be a democratic cross-community consent mechanism to block new EU measures that would be harmful to Northern Ireland and internal UK trade. What was produced under that name was a convoluted complaints procedure with a near zero sum chance of action. In his recent book even Peter Foster admitted that if ever all the buttons needed for Stormont to pull its imaginary brake were pressed, Brussels would threaten any NI access to the EU market to force its will.  What was asked for was a solid chain and strong padlock but what Sunak got was barely a silk bow. The curiosity was how some in Whitehall seemed shocked at the Unionist ability to work this out rather than thank them for the nice ribbon.

Stopping there

Many predicted the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson would have made a deal by now. However, rather than it be recognised as a failure of the pundits, they blame its absence on him being unwilling and unable — weakly in thrall to sinister forces. This is a poor analysis. By temperament Jeffrey is a man who seeks to resolve issues and make progress but his desire to do a deal has palpably not been a rush to simply take any deal. He is not Sunak negotiating with the EU. 

When Donaldson took over the DUP in 2021, the defenestration of Arlene Foster by an Edwin Poots/Ian Paisley Jnr putsch had almost sunk the DUP. The Unionist electorate was in a virtual three-way tie between the DUP, the more liberal Ulster Unionist Party, and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice. Their new leader nursed the DUP through a tough Assembly campaign. He held off the challenges on the left and right to keep the DUP predominant. Importantly this election saw several new MLAs elected. Donaldson, against considerable odds and the predictions of the same old pundits, repeated this in the 2023 Local Government elections with no DUP losses. Politically, his electoral record has been substantially more successful than Sunak’s, and the DUP’s internal dominance of unionism remains firmly intact. 

Has the internal opposition gone away? The DUP putschists have licked their wounds and imagine their day will come again but their success was built on a particular set of circumstances. The 2019 Assembly election had seen DUP losses that fell disproportionately among the newer MLAs who were more loyal to Arlene Foster. Her factional enemies then took full advantage of internal disagreements on the COVID response (which she had fronted as First Minister), Unionist anger over the Protocol, and long running party frustrations with key figures in the headquarters staff. However, the new regime’s cataclysmic, Truss-like handling of events saw their internal coalition collapse within weeks.

Yet the media keeps treating the DUP as if it is 2021 and not 2023. The DUP MLA group has changed. For example, half of the “Gang of Six” that swung the first 2021 leadership election are no longer MLAs. Others learned bitter lessons for having played any role in it all. Now, the dissidents are reduced to snide briefings or unhelpful performances at Irish Embassy parties in London, trying to demonstrate relevance through annoyance. However, in the detail of these briefings they demonstrate their own weakness. For they invoke the names of Sammy Wilson and Lord Dodds (both senior figures and party officers), never their own. Partly cowardice but really as theirs carry little heft. The fact that Lord Dodds was as much a target of their past machinations as Baroness Foster is a further irony. The point here is that the initiative lies with Donaldson’s now.

In the wake of the Framework’s imposition, Donaldson still kept ongoing contact with Downing Street to scope out areas of possible progress. This was augmented by a DUP consultation in Northern Ireland chaired by former DUP leader Peter Robinson. After the local elections, these strands were brought together formally in a DUP paper submitted to Downing Street. This was endorsed by the Party Officers as the basis of a DUP return to devolution. A small negotiating team was appointed with it to report back to Party Officers when it believed sufficient progress had been secured. This has been a methodical approach to securing internal support for a sellable agreement.

The internal ducks are potentially in a row. What about Downing Street?

I would not start from here.

While the DUP has kept its counsel with no leaks, Whitehall and No 10 have not been so circumspect. A highly negative and senior briefing was given to The Times questioning if the DUP was serious at all. This repeated a curious pattern around the Windsor Framework. In advance of it some hacks were repeatedly and gleefully briefed by a credible figure, immersed in No 10’s NI policy, that the DUP was not getting its Protocol tests. The subsequent Sunak claims that all their tests had in fact been supposedly met inevitably then fell on jaundiced DUP ears. It looks to many students of these very familiar processes almost as if someone somewhere in the system wanted this one to fail too. With the DUP cast as intransigent villains, incapable of delivering for unionism. 

Fundamentally the problem has been, has the government’s inconsistent messaging just been spin and hope, or has their analysis been flawed from the start? At the time of the Windsor Framework deal some around the talks told the DUP that they appreciated it was less than their seven tests needed. However, they, in the manner of Boris Johnson, pointed to elements in the deal that would be the basis to go back for more in future and that this was the intention. Lords Godson and Bew were sent out to concede that while the Framework was on the face of it just another shit sandwich, eat up, for there might be jam on it tomorrow. Yet Sunak says he will not. 

Compounding all of this has been the extent to which the two former ERG chairmen now at the NIO, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, and his number two, Steve Baker, have gone native, regurgitating the tired schemes of their officials. Baker’s bombast in particular, oscillating as it has between frenetic unionism as a backbencher and equally noisy insistence on the EU’s deal or else now that he is a minister, has been thoroughly counter-productive.

This process runs the risk of past failures. Past interactions have been like a conversation with a person distracted by their phone. They are only listening to part of the conversation, but their ears prick up when talking about the public policy problems as that involves less actual effort. This produces a half-remembered list that is demoted in importance resulting in a low-ball political offer. When the DUP rejects this under-bidding, it results in flouncing and exasperation that a teenager would be proud of. 

Donaldson may have capital to spend but he will not buy nor try to sell a half-baked half loaf and instead wait for Labour.

When the DUP lists what it needs on the sea border it means it. When it says it wants to restore devolution it means that too. Listening to both messages, not one nor trying to play one off against the other, is the key, if Rishi Sunak’s government has any interest at all in restoring devolution. When the process is seen to contain a basic balance, and Unionists are treated as a full partner, it works. When unionism is treated as a minor player in the fate of Northern Ireland, the civil service is just wasting ministers’ time. As we now know, the DUP is well aware that they have alternatives to dealing with Rishi Sunak.  On the sea border we will find out soon enough if this sinking Tory government wants to do anything real or not.

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