27 October 2022

Could Northern Ireland scupper Sunak’s appeal to ‘unite or die’?


Rishi Sunak believes he can restore order to the Conservative Party and hold together an exceptionally fractious coalition of Tory MPs. There is an issue, though, that his predecessors failed to resolve that could fatally destabilise his premiership almost immediately.

Against a backdrop of economic crisis and the war in Ukraine, he may not think that it is top of his in-tray, but the Northern Ireland Protocol has proved one of the most intractable problems of the past three years.

Before the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson agreed to draw a trade and political border down the Irish Sea in order to prise a withdrawal agreement from the EU. That arrangement became a running challenge to the territorial integrity of the UK and a standing rebuke to Tory claims that they ‘got Brexit done’.

Now, the Labour Party has threatened to make a government bill, aimed at softening this internal frontier, into a major political battleground. Meanwhile, the ailing devolved institutions in Belfast, created by the Good Friday Agreement, may soon become impossible to revive and the protocol remains a key dividing line among feuding Conservative MPs.

As Mr Sunak assembled his cabinet yesterday and prepared to tackle a ‘profound’ crisis in the economy, the House of Lords started to scrutinise the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill line by line. This legislation, introduced by Liz Truss when she was foreign secretary, would give the Government powers to unilaterally override some of the biggest problems with the Irish Sea border.

The Labour Party, and its leader Keir Starmer, have threatened to ‘freeze’ the bill in the upper chamber, unless a series of conditions are met. Peers tabled 25 pages of amendments to the legislation, including a proposed requirement that the Government ‘exhaust all legal routes under the withdrawal agreement’, before using any of its powers.

These tactics are likely only to undermine ministers’ negotiations with the EU and prolong the political impasse in Belfast. The reappointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, is set to call another Stormont election on Friday, if the DUP sticks to its promise not to revive the province’s power-sharing institutions in the absence of progress on the Protocol. The Government is legally obliged to take this route, because no executive has been formed since the last poll in May, but, during previous crises, it circumvented the requirement with delaying legislation.

The DUP, like its Conservative counterpart, has had a fairly dismal time since the 2019 general election, including similar bouts of infighting and two changes of leader. But its decision to collapse the executive until the main issues with the sea border are dealt with is the most popular thing the party has done for ages. One recent poll showed that over 80% of unionist voters believed Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was right to stop the institutions working until these difficulties were addressed.

Since the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland and its fragile peace settlement have been used frequently as excuses for broader political gambits. The EU saw Ulster as the UK’s weak point in negotiations, and exploited that status ruthlessly alongside the Irish government. Theresa May used the province to justify her controversial attempts to keep the whole UK tied closely to Brussels’ single market and customs union. And Boris Johnson, in turn, made Northern Ireland a key aspect of his campaign to get rid of Mrs May, before performing a U-turn and accepting an Irish Sea border to secure his trade deal.

Now, the Labour Party is prepared to prolong political instability in the province and endanger the Good Friday institutions, by delaying and attacking the bill that the DUP says could persuade it to return to power-sharing. Starmer will hope these actions can shake Sunak’s young government and sow discord within the Conservative Party, but they are as irresponsible and cynical as previous attempts to use Northern Ireland to advance another agenda.

In the wake of Liz Truss’s resignation, the new Prime Minister assembled an impressively broad bloc of backers, ranging from the most diehard remainers to Steve Baker and other ERG members. Mr Sunak was not known, during his time as chancellor, as a strong advocate of the Union. But, during the leadership campaign against Liz Truss, he committed to support the protocol bill in the absence of a negotiated settlement on the protocol and invoked the late David Trimble’s unionism as a ‘counterbalance’ to nationalism.

Mr Baker, who is still, at the time of writing, a minister in the Northern Ireland Office, made it clear over the weekend that he supported Mr Sunak partly because he planned to ‘follow through on the current policy’ (on the protocol). The new Prime Minister is reported to have promised the ERG that, if necessary, he would use the Parliament Act to force the protocol bill through the House of Lords.

The Irish Sea border created practical problems for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like customs checks and, even more importantly, bales of onerous, costly paperwork. Just as significantly, it left the province under swathes of EU law and subjected it to the continuing jurisdiction of the ECJ. The Government knows that, if any solution to the protocol is to last, reassure unionists and repair Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, it must address these constitutional issues, as well as the symbolism of physical checks.

The previous three Conservative prime ministers made sweeping promises to Northern Irish unionists, but failed to deliver on their pledges. Mr Sunak is less associated with pro-Union rhetoric, but perhaps that gives him more wriggle room to carry through on his commitments. The protocol is not the most high-profile problem he faces, but it is an existential challenge to the UK, and it could quickly undermine his call to Tories to ‘unite or die’.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.