20 February 2023

Sunak’s proposed deal won’t solve the problems with the Protocol


Rishi Sunak’s critics have long claimed that he resembles a sales executive rather than a statesman. On Friday, he pitched his anticipated Northern Ireland Protocol deal to the leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, and other senior party officials. 

In the aftermath of that meeting, they seemed uncertain whether to buy the Prime Minister’s ‘hard sell’. Over the weekend, though, sentiment in the DUP appeared to harden, while Sunak himself dampened expectations by insisting there was ‘more work to do’. 

Now, he is expected to ‘pause’ the deal, rather than publish the details later today. The DUP’s Brexit spokesman at Westminster, Sammy Wilson, predicted that there would be no breakthrough this week after all, accusing the Government of going into talks with ‘an attitude of defeat’. 

The problem for unionists in Ulster is that the mooted agreement appears to focus exclusively on the practicalities of trade, rather than constitutional issues that they fear have undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

The EU is believed to have agreed to a green lane, for goods destined to stay in the province, which will do away with most physical checks and some paperwork for mainland companies supplying retailers in Northern Ireland. 

Theoretically, that sounds like progress, but it doesn’t solve the problem of single market rules and other EU laws applying in the province. The Government previously promised, through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, to implement a system of ‘dual regulation’ in Northern Ireland, but it seems to have dropped that demand in the face of opposition from Brussels.

When the UK started to renegotiate the Irish Sea border, under the leadership of former Brexit minister Lord Frost, he made it clear that ‘the current problems with the Protocol go to the heart of our territorial integrity, of what it means to be one country and one market’. The DUP did not collapse the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland solely because there were too many checks at the province’s ports. The party was appalled by the constitutional implications of running an internal border through UK territory.

If the reports are accurate, the Government’s deal with the EU leaves most of these implications untouched. Northern Ireland will remain cut off from the rest of the UK’s economy, with a trade border down the Irish Sea and swathes of life still governed by unaccountable EU officials.

However it’s presented, that would rank as a defeat for the Prime Minister. The idea that ministers could achieve through negotiations everything included in their Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has been comprehensively abandoned. 

The Government has argued, nevertheless, that its deal meets the ‘seven tests’ that the DUP drafted to gauge the acceptability of any solution. It may be possible, potentially, to sustain that claim, but in archetypal DUP style, the tests were always rather ambiguous.

There are clearly elements within the party that would like to return to the Stormont Assembly, and reclaim the powers and perks that it became accustomed to during decades of devolution. They will struggle though, to sell a deal to unionist voters that still sees Northern Ireland subjected to EU regulations that do not apply to the rest of the UK.

The DUP cannot argue credibly that the Union has been repaired if the province’s economy can continue to diverge from Great Britain while being pushed ever more firmly into an all-Ireland configuration.

At the moment, perhaps the best chance of avoiding that fate is if the Prime Minister actually sees this deal as the first step in a gradual realignment of the whole UK’s trading rules with those of the single market and customs union.

That would be consistent with reports that Mr Sunak has asked senior ministers and officials to prepare to rebuild Britain’s links with Brussels. Their plans will focus on ‘economic statecraft’, among other policy areas, which includes things like ‘trade, energy and economic standards’ that are included in the Protocol.

The UK’s realignment with the single market could solve some problems for Northern Ireland’s unionists, but it would also put them in a risky position. Theresa May previously tried to use the province as an excuse for her ‘backstop’, which she hoped would tie the whole country to the EU’s customs union and product regulations.

She could have argued honestly for this type of arrangement, emphasising its economic merits, rather than using Northern Ireland’s ‘peace process’ to force an unpopular outcome on Tory eurosceptics.  

If Rishi Sunak is planning something similar, he should be more open, rather than foisting a deal on Northern Ireland that fails to strengthen the Union and creates resentment in his own party.

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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.