The DUP must not lose sight of the benefits of an agreement with Northern Ireland

The writer was Britain’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, is now facing an unfair choice over the so-called “Windsor framework”, a deal to reset post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Is he going to direct Ian Paisley, who as leader of the DUP roared “Ulster says no” to Margaret Thatcher’s 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement? Or Ian Paisley, who in 2006 agreed to the St Andrews Agreement and established power-sharing with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, which brought prosperity and stability to Northern Ireland for more than a decade?

I have spent much of my adult life negotiating with the DUP on Northern Irish issues and the problem they always face at this stage is knowing when to screw and when to hold.

Based on experience, you wouldn’t bet that they would always choose the right option, especially under the pressure of DUP dissident Jim Allister on their right, calling for betrayal. This time, however, the answer should be clear.

There is no doubt that unionists were betrayed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019. He caught a deal with the EU that sacrificed their interests so he could quickly strike a deal for his Brexit supporters from England and win the election. Some of us pointed out at the time that this agreement would cause serious problems for trade unionists, undermining their identity.

Brexit has always affected the identity of one community or another in Northern Ireland. If the UK was to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, there had to be a line somewhere, regardless of the magic thinking of the Brexiteers who claimed that nonexistent technology could provide it.

Had the decision been to place this border on the island of Ireland, between north and south, it would have been a disaster for the Good Friday Agreement, which was designed to remove the poison of competing identities from provincial politics.

But it was and is a mistake to pretend that placing the border on the Irish Sea had no consequences for unionists – who would then be separated from the rest of the UK.

There is an unattractive tendency in some of the upper echelons of British politics to ignore the views of unionists because their traditions seem strange and old-fashioned. This is wrong – they have as much right to have their views respected as anyone else.

The DUP rightly takes its time to study the deal concluded on Monday. His approach has always been that of a doubting Thomas wanting to check and double check the details of every deal to see if it is being cheated.

However, they should not get lost in the weeds. When they look at this agreement, they will see that it solves the practical problems arising from the application of the Johnson Protocol on Northern Ireland. It meets the “Sainsbury’s test” they originally set up, whereby Northern Irish people can buy the same goods in a Lisburn supermarket as they do in Lowestoft.

Windsor frames also meet other tests they set. It establishes a green belt, allowing goods to flow freely back and forth between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It protects Northern Ireland’s place in the union, which can only be changed by a majority of the people in the province. And it provides for a greater democratic role for provincial politicians in the application of the Protocol.

What the new framework does not and could never do is to completely remove the border. There has to be a border somewhere, and the unions have no alternative proposal as to where it should be.

It would therefore be wise to accept this deal, which will give Northern Ireland much-needed stability and an opportunity to attract investment and jobs, while making that border invisible in all respects.

Even if the framework doesn’t provide everything the DUP wants, they shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. It protects the Good Friday Agreement and protects their interests. Demand to reopen negotiations will not work and they will be stuck in a dead end without the Stormont Assembly and permanent political instability in Northern Ireland.

Donaldson withdrew from the Good Friday negotiations as the deal was being signed in 1998. This time, he has the opportunity to redeem himself, as Paisley did when he changed from Dr No in 1985 to Dr Yes in 2006.

Video: Northern Ireland tries to heal legacy of separation | FT movie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *