Reports suggest that a deal between Brussels and London on the Northern Ireland protocol could be reached in the next few days. This would leave Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson with a hugely important call to make. His decision will involve both an assessment of the sensitive detail of whatever may be agreed, and a calculation of the DUP’s legitimate short-term electoral interests, taking into account the likely response of more extreme voices within unionism.
It is in the DUP’s longer-term interests, as well as in the interests of unionism more generally, that a creative agreement is now reached and implemented between the United Kingdom and European Union. Looking to the future, any reasonable compromise, even an imperfect one, would on balance be better for the DUP than the alternative of ongoing political stalemate in Northern Ireland and the likelihood of growing confrontation between the UK and EU.
Most obviously, it is in the interests of unionism that Northern Ireland is seen to work. By definition, that is a core objective of unionism. It can hardly be claimed that Northern Ireland is working effectively as long as the institutions of the Belfast Agreement are in cold storage, and if decisions affecting the people of Northern Ireland are taken either by civil servants or by the London government with input from Dublin. That is not to apportion blame for the present impasse. It is simply to observe that, in the longer run, effective functioning of the region as an integral part of the UK is a more fundamental priority for those who want to retain the constitutional status quo than for those who want to change it.
A smoothly functioning relationship, both economically and politically, between the two parts of the island of Ireland, far from being a threat to the union, is an essential element in ensuring that the present constitutional dispensation can work equitably, confidently and without friction over time. Recent opinion surveys suggest that Irish unity is a long way from having majority support In Northern Ireland. But political opinions are not set in stone. Nothing would be more likely to change the political equation, in a way unfavourable to unionism, than the significant disruption of North-South relations and co-operation. The prospect of a new border on the island of Ireland would very likely have a significant impact on attitudes towards the constitutional question. It would strengthen calls for a referendum on Irish unity.
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Moreover, the protocol potentially offers immense economic opportunities for Northern Ireland, some of which can already be seen. That is not to dismiss the irritants that the protocol entails for east-west trade or to minimise unionist sensitivities about them. However, if a reasonable UK-EU compromise can be reached on the protocol, with both sides conceding something, the possibility of Northern Ireland truly having the best of both trading worlds is a real one. Many unionists realise that. Northern Ireland, with one foot firmly in the EU’s single market and the other rooted in the wider UK market, would work better economically than ever before, including in terms of investment. It would further strengthen the union rather than weaken it.
Another consideration is that it can hardly be in the DUP’s interests to fall out with the London government or with British public opinion more generally. Rishi Sunak is the first British prime minister for some time to realise that it is in the UK’s essential interests to improve its relationship with the EU rather than allow that relationship to deteriorate further. This reflects the view of a significantly growing majority of the British people. Sunak seems to understand that the state of the British economy and the restoration of the UK’s international influence make this a core government priority, especially given the war in Ukraine. He also recognises that the necessary path towards such an improvement in British-EU relations lies in finding a way to implement the protocol, with maximum flexibility from the EU and even beyond the EU’s comfort zone.
The re-establishment and effective functioning of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly would be good for the DUP’s standing and influence with the present British government and with the Labour government in prospect. Being seen, on the other hand, to have been responsible for a further deterioration in the UK-EU relationship would leave the party more isolated from mainstream opinion in Westminster.
The DUP should not be expected to act in the interests of Rishi Sunak; still less in the interests of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič or Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill. It will act in its own interests and those of its supporters. My hope is that, if it takes a wider, long-term view of those interests, things will be all right on the night.