The discussion on the Northern Ireland Protocol has changed subtly in recent days — and not just because Brexiteers have new lingo, by way of the “Windsor Agreement”, to brandish. Rather, both the substance and tenor of the debate have shifted dramatically because the prime minister appears to have negotiated a better deal with the EU than many were expecting.
In response to the new “red lane”-“green lane” trading regime, sweetened by a “Stormont Brake”, there have been no resignations, no stinging intervention from Boris Johnson and barely a whisper from the European Research Group of eurosceptic Conservatives. That former Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost’s has emerged as a cautious supporter of the Framework a serious coup for the PM and a microcosmic signal of the improved mood music.
But the terms of a protocol resolution’s “success” were always more multifaceted than bettered relations within the Conservative party. A rather more important yardstick is to what extent the deal creates the conditions for the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, shunting the Democratic Unionist Party back to Stormont in time for the 25th Good Friday Agreement’s anniversary on 10 April.
In May 2022 the DUP withdrew from Stormont citing their fervent opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol as negotiated by Boris Johnson. The blinkless stand-off has incapacitated politics in the six counties, and to a lesser extent the UK as a whole, ever since.
Compelling Northern Ireland’s foremost unionist party to bury its stridently defensive instincts, forged through decades of conflict and political rupture, would be a political achievement of serious proportion for the prime minister. But with DUP MPs presently retreated into Westminster enclaves, vicariously raking through the framework through their lawyers, a totemic “No” may be the likeliest outcome. If getting Brexit “done” depends on DUP support, then the widespread merriment provoked by the Windsor agreement has been seriously premature.
The DUP’s political prominence is a consequence not only of NI’s sui generis political culture, but also of the party’s deep Brexit bond with the ERG forged through 2016-2019. Their shared positions on sovereignty, and shared history of being spurned by the British establishment, mean the two tri-lettered troupes are often spoken of in the same breath.
But the DUP’s ERG-like absolutism has also created severe political problems for the party. In caucusing with some of Brexit’s most ardent cheerleaders, they have stuck rigidly to hardline positions on the UK’s EU withdrawal, insisting on total delivery on familiar terms. The issue for the DUP being that the abstract nouns that drove the Brexit argument, namely “freedom”, “sovereignty” and “control”, have very different meanings in the six counties.
The nature of Northern Ireland’s political settlement means it is fundamentally unclear where the party’s absolutist visions of Brexit and unionism converge. Indeed, even when the party was presented with a deal which ensured there would be no distinction between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in Theresa May’s “backstop” the DUP refused to buckle. This fact, and the DUP’s initial support for Johnson’s “oven ready” deal before it promptly backfired, has for many exposed the logical and intellectual instability at the heart of the party’s Euroscepticism.
It begs a significant, if familiar question: how does the party proceed in light of the new Brexit agreement?
Option 1: Accept the Framework
One option would be for the DUP to dial down the rhetoric and slowly begin to reconcile itself to Sunak’s deal. While the Windsor Framework does not meet all of the party’s redlines, the so-called “Stormont brake” has been devised to assuage potential unionist embitterment. Under this new lever, 30 MLAs are needed from two parties to stop new EU rules applying in the province. The blocking minority would then compel the British government to unilaterally veto the new rules applying in the six counties. It is in essence an instrument of unionist resistance, and amounts to a clear concession by the European Union.
The veto presents a victory of sorts for the DUP, it is a signal that the Stormont boycott had won genuine concessions from the EU, plotting a route for an otherwise difficult climbdown. It presents optics the party could sell to its grassroots; after a yearslong DUP-EU staredown, a battle of obstinacy for the ages, Brussels had blinked first.
Option 2: ‘Ulster says No’
But as ever with Northern Ireland’s politics, the politics are not as simple as this. It’s clear now that the deal does not eradicate the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) — a clear DUP redline. Unionist lawyers, too, may quibble with how far the new “green lane” “red lane” trade regime undoes the much-denied-then-much-maligned Irish Sea border. And the grandly-named “Stormont brake”, well the attached caveats and controls could make its inclusion purely symbolic.
Equally, the party will be looking over its shoulder for hardline opportunists in the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). In the same way the DUP emerged as a hardline alternative to the UUP in the early 1970s, the TUV surfaced as a more strident ethno-national adversary to the DUP in the 2000s. Under the leadership of founder and DUP defector Jim Allister, the TUV has not needed lawyerly influence to conclude that the Windsor Framework fails to live up to unionist concerns.
A poll by LucidTalk, conducted prior to the Framework’s announcement, put the DUP on 25 per cent in an assembly election (down 2 per cent) and the TUV on 7 per cent (up 2 per cent). It does not take an electoral guru to work out the political dynamics here. Such information will be closely conditioning the DUP’s strategy over the coming weeks.
It is probably telling that in the lead up to the Brexit deal announcement, the DUP laid no ground in preparation for a potential climbdown. The substance of the Windsor Framework had been briefed out to the press for weeks, potentially to give the DUP some political space to soften its rhetoric and prepare its right flank for a TUV backlash. But no such preparations were made. One can only question the thoughtfulness of this strategy with little chance of satisfactory delivery.
Now a deal has been announced the DUP’s response has vacillated between quiet acquiescence and unqualified animosity. On the one hand, you have DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson hailing “significant progress” in the deal. On the other, you have hardliners in Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley junior outlining that the Framework “does not cut the mustard”, with Paisley telling GB News that it “falls some way short” in meeting the seven tests for a satisfactory protocol resolution.
The implication is that a split is forming within the DUP between hardliners and slightly softer hardliners.
Ultimately, the protocol misfortune underlined the truism that the British state is far less loyal to the DUP than the DUP is to the British state. But the issue for unionism is that its largest champion arguably served as the midwife of the present impasse. Because of this reason, it will likely be weeks before the DUP pronounces on its view of the Windsor Framework. And in the end, the decision may simply come down to what the DUP thinks a response will do for their chances in a Stormont election.