The Northern Irish question has caused endless headaches in Belfast, London and Brussels throughout the Brexit saga. Now analysts say the deal Prime Minister Rishi Sunak struck with the EU Commission this week offers genuine resolution of the problem. However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)’s backing will be needed to get the Northern Irish parliament functioning again – and, true to form, their support is elusive.
To understand the significance of Sunak’s achievement, flash back to 2019. Brexit talks had repeatedly faltered over the Northern Irish border – consuming the British public’s patience along with Theresa May’s premiership. Boris Johnson entered Downing Street promising to resolve the conundrum.
Johnson reached his deal in October 2019 by replacing the troubling prospect of a new border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic with the troubling reality of a new border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The Northern Ireland protocol in Johnson’s agreement kept the British province in the European single market for goods – and that meant a customs border in the Irish Sea.
At the time, Johnson’s short-term fix was popular among a British electorate fatigued by the Brexit saga. But critics warned the deal would threaten the Northern Irish unionists’ identity – notably Jonathan Powell, who was then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s negotiator for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), who wrote a damning piece in the Irish Times warning that the Protocol was a big problem.
Protocol ‘wasn’t going to function’
Flash forward to the present, with few doubting that Powell was vindicated in his assessment. The pertinacious DUP brought down the Northern Irish Assembly, known as Stormont, out of anger over the protocol in February 2022. The devolved parliament has been in limbo ever since, as the Good Friday Agreement dictates it must if the biggest unionist or nationalist party withdraws.
In response, Johnson unveiled in June a plan to unilaterally renege on his own deal. This prompted the EU to raise the spectre of a trade war. Sunak quietly shelved Johnson’s bill after entering Downing Street in October.
By this point, the Protocol was affecting day-to-day issues outside Northern Ireland’s tumultuous constitutional politics. Trading friction between the British province and the rest of the UK shot up the agenda over recent months as it disrupted the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland.
“It’s clear that the unionist concerns were correct,” said Peter Shirlow, director of Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies. “The Protocol just wasn’t going to function.”
‘A massive change’
Known as the Windsor Framework after it was unveiled at the historic Windsor Guildhall on Monday, Sunak’s deal proposes to remove the customs border issue by creating a “green lane” and “red lane” for trade. Goods traded from Great Britain to stay in Northern Ireland go in the green lane and would require no customs checks. Goods sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for export to the Irish Republic or the rest of the EU go into the “red lane”, remaining subject to customs checks in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile Stormont would now be able to operate an “emergency brake” to stop future EU single market laws applying if 30 out of the 90 members from at least two parties oppose them.
“Sunak’s deal quite clearly resolves the issue,” Shirlow said. “It’s restored Northern Ireland place in the UK economy. It’s very clear that goods traded between Great Britain and Northern Ireland won’t have paperwork friction, so medicines for example will be able to move without checks, which takes away a lot of nervousness. So it’s a seismic moment; a massive change from what we have before. I don’t think anyone imagined the deal coming out the way it did.”
In large part, the change in what was possible came from a change of personnel in Downing Street. Brussels did not trust Johnson. But Sunak’s emollient, technocratic approach to diplomacy is very different from Johnson’s jocular bluster, encapsulated by his (in)famous declaration that “my policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”. Tellingly, EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen addressed Sunak as “dear Rishi” amid the smiles and fanfare at Windsor.
“Sunak made it clear from the outset that he wanted a negotiated settlement with the EU, that he didn’t want to override the protocol with an arbitrary measure as Johnson wanted to,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at Liverpool University. “Sunak was always of the view that this would break international law.”
The EU also changed its position in reaction to events in Northern Ireland, Tonge noted: “They could see that – with the DUP being out of Stormont – the protocol had contributed to the downfall of a political institution associated with the Good Friday Agreement, so it wasn’t a good way of protecting that agreement, which it was designed to do. The EU also recognised that the volume of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was never going to circumvent their single market. So it was an outbreak of common sense on both sides.”
The Windsor Framework is all but certain to pass the House of Commons, seeing as the Labour Party supports it and most of the Tory hardliners the European Research Group are onside. The only remaining question for Sunak is whether the DUP will accept the deal, which is bound up with ending more than a year of boycotting to get Stormont up and running again. “If they accept the deal, they may as well get back to Stormont – and if they feel the time is right to do the latter, they will accept the deal,” explained Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.
The DUP reach this crossroads at a vexed time, having lost much of their hegemony within Northern Irish unionism. Support for remaining in the UK is robust, with just over 30 percent of people in Northern Ireland wanting to join the Irish Republic, as many Catholics in this in province have come to support membership of the UK since the Good Friday Agreement. But an increasing number of unionists – young people especially – are disillusioned with the DUP’s evangelical Protestant stance on social issues.
Many have switched to the centrist Alliance Party – a process that helped the DUP sink to second place below their nationalist arch-enemies Sinn Fein in last year’s Northern Irish polls. At the same time, the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice has siphoned off votes from the DUP’s traditional base.
When it comes to the Windsor Framework, the DUP is “worried that blocking progress will earn the resentment of more moderate unionist voters but that compromising will see hardline voters desert it for more radical alternatives”, Bale said.
Despite pressure from Downing Street and other Northern Irish parties, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the party will scrutinise the deal and wait to “be sure” it serves the province’s interests. “It’s a sensible decision, from their standpoint, to look closely at the deal while buying time and sorting out internal party management,” Tonge said. “But the decision might take weeks, possibly months.”
Ian Paisley Jr – one of the DUP’s most influential figures, as the son of its founder and decades-long leader – told the BBC that Sunak’s deal “doesn’t cut the mustard”. But analysts point out a divide between the attitudes of DUP MPs like Paisley, who tend to have safe seats at Westminster, and DUP representatives at the Northern Irish Assembly, who look more inclined to back the deal and get Stormont up and running again.
“The DUP’s Westminster team have less skin in the game,” Tonge put it. Back in Northern Ireland, if Stormont stays shut and direct rule from Westminster has to be introduced, that means “no more local power” for the DUP. So “a lot” of the party’s representatives at Stormont could “lose their livelihoods” if the DUP does not back the Windsor Framework, Tonge pointed out.
“Most unionist voters want compromise; they wanted Stormont to be working again, they wanted the Protocol to be sorted, and they can see that Europe delivered what they wanted with the Windsor Framework,” Shirlow concluded – noting that these voters will have made their views clear to their DUP representatives in Northern Ireland.