The writer is director of Chatham House, a think-tank
I was standing with a group of American officials and political analysts on Monday when the news came through that Rishi Sunak had struck a deal with the EU. The pictures of the prime minister standing with Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, both beaming, provoked a chorus of relief, more emotional than you might expect from that austere group. We can deal with the UK again, was one response. There might even be a visit from President Joe Biden for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next month.
The relief is justified. Sunak has pulled off what eluded Boris Johnson and Theresa May (and would have eluded Liz Truss): significant concessions from the EU over trade with Northern Ireland. That boulder had stuck out from the dust and rubble of Brexit to block better relations between the UK and EU, and proved a daily obstacle to people and businesses in Northern Ireland or those wanting to visit or trade with them. Sunak’s pragmatic personality and his willingness to trade concessions helped a lot. So, arguably, did the passage of time. The EU came to realise that the problems of the Northern Ireland protocol were real and jeopardising political stability, even peace, in the province.
Where does the deal leave relations now? Sunak has offered parliament a vote and he will win that. He would prefer to do so on the back of just Conservative votes and probably can, although the Labour opposition has said it will support the deal. The pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs has split over it. Some probably won’t back the deal, nor may MPs from the Democratic Unionist party, but for the purposes of pressing ahead, that need not impede Sunak.
Press ahead is what he should do. The Windsor framework, together with the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement, provide for much smoother trade between the UK and EU and between mainland UK and Northern Ireland. There will be years of tinkering with the details of relations between the UK and its closest trading partner. But this agreement lays the foundation for that, settling the bitterest point of dispute.
For trade in Northern Ireland, it is good news. Paperwork and checks for dealing with the mainland will be vastly reduced or eliminated. Yet the province will retain the benefits of having an essentially open border with the Republic of Ireland. Many people and businesses in Northern Ireland have welcomed the news.
The politics are cloudier than the economics, though. The framework confronts the DUP with a difficult choice. One provision is that the “Stormont brake” on new EU legislation applying to the province works only if the Northern Ireland legislative assembly is sitting. But the DUP has been refusing to join that power-sharing executive, partly — it says — because of its objections to the way the protocol had treated the province differently from the mainland. Northern Ireland has been without a government since elections in May.
Those elections gave the nationalist Sinn Féin party, for the first time, the largest number of seats in the assembly. Many have surmised that the DUP’s reluctance to rejoin is also because of its objection to Sinn Féin having the right to appoint the first minister as a result of that victory. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP would have the right to the deputy post.
Some DUP MPs are clearly reckoning that they might use the threat of still not rejoining the assembly as leverage on Sunak to remove parts of the Windsor agreement that they do not like. The remaining residual role for the European Court of Justice is one. But others warn against overplaying the party’s hand — as it did under May’s government, when she owed her majority to its support. (On foggy Tuesdays, while other MPs headed to Westminster from their constituencies by road or rail, her team would bitterly joke that the whole of the government’s majority was stuck on the airport tarmac in Belfast.)
The DUP’s MPs and leading voices are also clearly not united. There are some who appear to want little less than a moat between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Others urge their colleagues to consider the alternative without this deal.
They are right to urge caution. The party’s supporters have been subtly shifting in their views for years. The farmers and small business people who make up much of the traditional support might be as keen to be part of the union as ever — but they also want an open border with the Republic across which to sell their products. Their views are often more nuanced than those of their representatives.
If the DUP does refuse to rejoin the assembly, it will bring to a head the simmering question about whether the rules of power-sharing need to be reviewed. One argument is over the Good Friday Agreement’s allocation of the posts of first minister and deputy to the nationalist and unionist parties winning the largest number of assembly seats. That discourages voters, some feel, from backing non-partisan parties such as Alliance, which came third in the elections, adding nine seats to the eight it already had. Support for Alliance, founded in 1970 with the aim of “bridging divisions” between Catholic and Protestant communities, has been rising steadily.
Another argument is that no party should be able to hold the entire government in paralysis. Civil servants have been doing their best in the years when the assembly has been suspended, but they point out that there are key decisions — including over health and education spending — that need to be taken by elected politicians.
That conversation is audible among US officials, too. No one is rushing to reopen the Good Friday Agreement, brokered with such difficulty a quarter of a century ago. But after the anniversary, after Biden has come and gone, and if the DUP still refuses to join a government, that question about a revision of power-sharing rules will become much louder. All the more reason for Sunak to push ahead now, whatever the DUP says.