The events of the DUP meeting on Monday night have been variously described as a farce and a very important crossing of the Rubican. The remarkable thing is that both interpretations may be true.
On the one hand you have the harsh reality that not a letter of the Protocol or the Windsor framework have been changed, the operation of which was always going to be subject to operational and political review, depending on any practical difficulties with contraband goods appearing within the Single Market, and the political will of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Seen from this perspective, the DUP decision and the assurances given to them by the UK government are an enormous climbdown from the hard Brexit pursued by successive Tory governments and particularly by the DUP and their ERG allies.
On the other hand, we have had two years of chaos in Northern Ireland, with no effective government, declining public services, and the Union, in many people’s eyes, severely damaged. What was it all for? The chaos at the meeting, as leaked and reported by Jamie Bryson who was described by the BBC as “a very important unionist” despite never having been elected to anything, was an apt metaphor and conclusion for those last two years.
However, it must be remembered that there has also been chaos in Westminster during that period, with three changes of Prime Minister, many threats of breaking international law, and pandemonium at many meetings. So, what does it all mean?
Firstly, the Brexiteer dream of an independently powerful Britain, charting its way through world affairs on its own terms, is effectively over. What we have instead is a series of inconsequential trade deals, largely cut and paste jobs of preceding EU trade deals and often with additional concessions. In one negotiation, Liz Truss, then Trade Minister, actually asked the Australian negotiating team what they needed to get a deal over the line quickly. Meanwhile there is no trade deal with the USA, and trading relations with the EU, the UK’s major trading partner, have been hugely damaged.
Secondly, the effect on the UK economy has been rather negative, variously estimated at around 4% of GDP, due to declining investment, flat-lining productivity, labour shortages in key sectors, inadequate government tax revenues despite a record tax take as a percentage of GDP, public debt rising to almost 100% of GDP, and austerity in public services leading to unprecedented reliance on food banks and other indicators of poverty.
Meanwhile, in looking for the much vaunted “Brexit opportunities,” the Sunak government have been reduced to hailing the legalisation of champagne in pint sized bottles and claiming global leadership in Artificial Intelligence regulation. Some natural intelligence would have been more helpful.
Thirdly, there has been enormous reputational damage to the UK and its once much admired Civil Service. Relations with the EU and the USA remain at a low ebb, and relations with Ireland have been thrashed. The implication of this latest deal is that at last the UK has started to take its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement seriously. The Good Friday Agreement provides for only two options: Power sharing within Northern Ireland, or a United Ireland. Without power sharing, further drift towards a United Ireland was the danger and not an option from a Conservative and Unionist perspective.
In many ways, this could come to be seen as a second “Suez Moment,” when the British Empire of the day first realised it could no longer shape the world to its desires without US support. This time it had to learn the hard way that there were many unappreciated benefits of EU membership which are now no longer on offer. Britain could not have its cake and eat it.
This was first recognised last August when Sunak, with Kemi Badenoch’s support, extended the use of the EU’s CE quality assurance mark for British goods indefinitely, in response to complaints from British Industry that having to work to different standards for the British and EU markets damaged their competitiveness and was beyond the resources of many smaller firms. This has now been repackaged as a concession to the DUP’s concerns around a border in the Irish sea. More legislation is promised which is likely to have zero practical effect beyond reassuring the DUP that power sharing within Northern Ireland remains the British Government’s preferred option.
And contrary to unionist fears, the constitutional status quo remains the preferred option for the Irish government, the EU, and the USA. None have any interest in further upheaval in the north. A United Ireland can only come into play if a majority in Northern Ireland want it. But here again unionism cannot have its cake and eat it. Power sharing is the price it must pay for continued Union with Britain, even if under nominal Sinn Féin leadership.
It is too early to say what the political ramifications of the British government and DUP’s decisions will be. The public will need some time to digest the details of a deal which will not be published until Jeffrey Donaldson and the establishment media have had more time to shape public perceptions of it. Opinion polls indicate that the Tories face a rout in any case, but if these decisions lead to a revitalisation of the Reform party, the right wing vote could be split in the UK, with a faint possibility of the Tories even losing their place in the duopoly of power in Westminster.
The Liberals, for instance, could argue that the UK might as well re-join the Single Market where they could become rule makers rather than rule takers. Many in the UK always argued that they had agreed to join a “common market” rather than a political union, the founding 1957 Treaty of Rome’s opening declaration in the preamble that the signatories were “determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe“ notwithstanding.
Similarly in Northern Ireland, if this decision leads to a split in the DUP, or even just some major defections, the near automatic place of the DUP within the power sharing duopoly could be at risk, with Alliance best placed to overtake them in the polls.
This seems a long shot for the moment and would presumably require Alliance to redesignate as unionist to take up the Deputy First Ministership, something they would be loath to do. It would, however, hugely increase the pressure for a reform of the Good Friday Agreement, and particularly the modifications introduced in St. Andrew’s to favour the largest parties in unionism and nationalism over any third party.
Mind you, if Alliance were to re-designate as unionist, even for a temporary period, the DUP would lose its veto to any reforms intended to end this institutionalisation of sectarian divisions in line with Alliance policy. Just how ruthless is Alliance prepared to be, or is it more comfortable just presenting itself as a largely ineffectual but virtuous non-sectarian party of the middle ground? And would Sinn Féin play ball?
More likely the DUP might lose a few percentage points from their current polling high of 28% down to something more like the 21-23% they achieved in the Assembly and Local elections last time out. It would end all hope of them re-taking the lead over Sinn Féin for the foreseeable future. No doubt pressure to re-name the Deputy First Minister post to Joint First Minister would increase. We can’t have unionists even appearing to have to play second fiddle, even if the tune is much the same. What was good enough for nationalism may be not good enough for the loyal sons of Ulster.
In all this time, Sinn Fein have been observing Napoleon’s reputed maxim “never interrupt your enemy while they are busy making a mistake”. The ructions within the Conservative and Unionist parties must have been music to their ears. Their support has risen from 29% at the last Assembly elections to 31% in the local elections and recent polls. It remains to be seen how they will react when the details of the Sunak/Donaldson deal have been revealed. Have they been kept in the loop? It would be a poor look for “Equality of Esteem” if, as claimed by Donaldson, the DUP are the only party the UK government have been talking to. Even An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, claims not to have seen the details.
Interestingly, even Sinn Féin aren’t having it all their own way down south, having declined from a high of 35% in September 2023 to 25% in the most recent poll. That lost 10% has not been gained by the government parties however, going to independents instead. This would appear to indicate that it is local and domestic issues such as immigration which are having more of an impact. Even in opposition, it can be hard to sit on both sides of the fence.
If sustained, his trend would end the current dominant political narrative of Sinn Féin inevitably leading the next Irish government, and perhaps relieve some of the current siege mentality within unionism. Brexit would finally have been “done” and people could get on with their lives largely oblivious to changed political realities. The Windsor Framework enjoys popular support and does not rank highly in most people’s immediate priorities, when compared to the cost of living and the decline of public services.
So, what was all this Sturm und Drang about Brexit and its outworking in Northern Ireland ultimately all for? A flexing of the muscles of English nationalism? A far right libertarian economic coup against regulation of all sorts? A nostalgic revolt against the indignities of imperial decline and having to work within the EU as an equal member? A failed attempt to over-turn the Good Friday Agreement and entrench a hard border within Ireland? A xenophobic rejection of foreigners in Britain and Irish identity in Northern Ireland?
What good has come of it? Jeffrey Donaldson has probably assured himself of a place in the House of Lords in Sunak’s resignation honours list, but I suspect politics in Britain and Ireland will never quite be the same again. The Tories will pay a heavy price and parties in Northern Ireland will think twice about collapsing power sharing again. The underlying economic realities will probably not change all that much until a new and more positive relationship is established between Britain, Ireland, and the EU. I suspect that will be a task for a new generation of leaders.