21 March 2023

The DUP won’t support Sunak’s deal – but will the PM care?


On Monday the DUP finally announced that it would vote against Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland Protocol deal.

The province’s biggest unionist party previously delayed giving a verdict on the ‘Windsor Framework’, claiming that it needed more time to digest the details. Indeed, although the DUP promised to judge any deal exclusively by ‘seven tests’ that it developed in 2021, some critics thought it was preparing to drop this stance, when it convened a panel to ‘undertake a wide consultation process within Northern Ireland’.

Last week, though, the party’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, took time out of a St Patrick’s Day trip to Washington DC to express his unhappiness with aspects of the Windsor Framework. In a long press release, he claimed that some of it needed ‘reworking’.

Donaldson was forced to further clarify the DUP’s position when the Prime Minister decided there would be a House of Commons vote on the deal this Wednesday. The Sunday Telegraph had already suggested that the party’s MPs would oppose the Government, while the influential MP, Ian Paisley Junior, told Monday’s Belfast News Letter that he would definitely vote against.

The conviction that the DUP could not support the Framework had obviously hardened, particularly among its representatives at Westminster. And whether or not Sir Jeffrey shared those feelings, he could not ignore the problems that had emerged with the deal since it was first published.

Many of the sweeping claims that the Government made of its agreement have either been disproven or have proven impossible to substantiate. It also became apparent that the EU and the UK interpreted the Framework very differently.

The Prime Minister claimed initially that his deal would remove ‘any sense’ of a border in the Irish Sea. It emerged almost immediately, though, that companies from Great Britain would still be required to complete customs paperwork to send goods to Northern Ireland and the EU would continue to conduct checks as a way of safeguarding its single market.

There have since been a steady stream of revelations that undermine the Government’s claim that it has fully restored the province’s place in the UK’s internal market.

While it seems that food and medicines that meet British rather than EU standards can be sold in Northern Ireland, other products must conform to Brussels’ rules. And despite the fact that the province will remain effectively in the single market for goods, companies will need to place ‘Not for EU’ labels on merchandise for Ulster.

This is exactly the kind of petty bureaucracy that originally dissuaded small businesses from GB from trading with Northern Ireland and made the Protocol so controversial in the first place

At the weekend the Belfast Telegraph journalist Sam McBride reported that, although the government claimed the Framework sorted out problems with mainland firms supplying plants to Northern Ireland, many would still be banned. In fact, he revealed that the situation was likely to get worse under the new deal, because unilateral ‘grace periods’ would no longer be in place.

What was more, when McBride asked Defra and other government departments ‘simple factual questions’ about the horticulture rules, he found a ‘level of obfuscation – and in one instance an exceptionally misleading form of words’ that he found ‘highly unusual’.

At the weekend, the News Letter’s editor, Ben Lowry, wrote that some ‘hauliers and manufacturers’ had met a group of Stormont MLAs and persuaded them that the Framework would entrench ‘an irreversible fracture of the Great Britain supply chain (to Northern Ireland)’.

It’s easy for critics on the mainland to hector the DUP and other unionists for their seeming intransigence, but as more information emerges about Rishi Sunak’s deal, the promises it made seem to be collapsing into dust. They are dealing with an arrangement that promises to be permanent and will play a key role in determining Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.

Whether that fact will make any difference at Westminster, or quieten the lecturing and emoting from the Framework’s proponents, is doubtful. It was always clear that many MPs and commentators wanted a deal – any deal – to make the Northern Ireland problem go away.

The Prime Minister has chosen to subject only the ‘Stormont Brake’, a safeguard that could in theory allow MLAs to block EU laws, to a vote in the House of Commons. This element of the deal was intended to appeal to unionists and the Government hoped to portray their approval for the brake as an acceptance of the whole Framework.

This tactic seems to have backfired, but it’s by no means clear how many Conservatives will join the DUP in voting against the measure. The European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteer MPs previously claimed it was in ‘lock step’ with the Northern Irish party, but some of its members initially welcomed the Framework.

Even if there is a rebellion, the Government is not likely to lose the vote, because it expects support from Labour. The Prime Minister’s position will not be strengthened, though, if a substantial section of his party decides that his much heralded Framework ‘achievement’ was actually a con trick.

Contrary to the cliches, the DUP, does not seem to relish its role as a fly in Sunak’s ointment. In his statement today, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that, although his party would vote against the statutory instrument on Wednesday, it would ‘continue to work with the Government on all the outstanding issues relating to the (Framework package) to try to restore the delicate political balances within Northern Ireland’.

The party clearly wants to return to power-sharing at the Stormont Assembly and claim a victory, but it needs to be able to credibly persuade its voters that the province’s place in the Union has been repaired. Unfortunately, as the Windsor Framework attracts more scrutiny, that task becomes more difficult.

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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.