The scenes in Westminster last Monday evening were a welcome reprieve from past bluster and negativity. Prime minister Rishi Sunak gave an impressive presentation of the deal reached with the EU. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, gave a positive and bipartisan endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement, as did the great majority of speakers. It was a moving spectacle and much needed in the run up to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP is in a difficult position. The Windsor Framework reflects a significant degree of EU flexibility, but for some DUP members and the hardline TUV any EU role in Northern Ireland is a violation of sovereignty. It may not be enough for some unionists as EU rules will continue to apply in some areas of the economy and the ECJ is still the final arbiter of EU law. The Stormont Brake and a range of other measures help reduce a domestic democratic deficit. However, the framework is as good as it gets and almost certainly represents the end of the negotiating process. It is here to stay regardless of the DUP’s decision.
Therefore, as Freya McClements wrote in this paper last Tuesday, the DUP has a dilemma: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP fear that if the party accepts the deal and returns to Stormont it could risk losing votes to the hardline TUV, including at May’s local elections. But if the DUP rejects the deal and does not re-enter Stormont it will alienate Westminster and international opinion further.
Unionism has a near absence of diplomatic soft power and a reputation for being uncompromising. In fact a large majority of unionists, not just the more extreme, were unhappy about the protocol, and for understandable reasons, but the image persisted of unreasonable stubbornness. Rejecting the Windsor Framework, a very ambitious deal greeted with warmth, would embed that reputation further.
The implications for unionism’s reputation are particularly stark because it will continue to face challenges. A recent ARINS/Irish Times survey, led by Brendan O’Leary and John Garry, showed that more support the union than a united Ireland, but the authors noted that the large number of undecided “persuadables” will be crucial for the future of the union – those who currently have neither nationalist nor unionist preferences. Nationalist and unionist parties playing only to their bases would undermine their respective aspirations because it would deter these “persuadables”.
The Good Friday Agreement’s survival through the DUP re-entering Stormont is core to rebuilding unionists’ image and enhancing their influence. The agreement has increasingly been seen by unionists as not representing their interests. Whether that is true or not, the perception matters. However, creative use of the agreement offers a way for unionists to have real influence, and the Windsor Framework has made clear that unionist concerns, particularly about east-west relations, are integral to the 1998 agreement and must be protected.
Unionists are no longer a majority, so a key priority is to avail of the agreement’s potential to protect minorities. The rules governing Strand One on internal governance are clearly useful, for example, the STV voting system and the requirement for cross-community consent. However, Strand Three’s British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (B-IIGC), although disliked by many unionists, also offers an avenue of influence. The logic of the B-IIGC stems from the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, when the Anglo-Irish Conference was meant to protect nationalist minority interests. The role of minority protector, however, means its creative use offers a way for unionists to feel better represented in the years ahead.
In addition, under the B-IIGC executive members can be involved in meetings and reviews about non-devolved Northern Ireland matters. In this way executive members, including unionists, could have direct access to higher level meetings in the post-Brexit period.
There are caveats to the agreement’s potential for unionists: Firstly, if the agreement’s institutions are to be used creatively to help unionists feel heard, their participation – like that of others – must be in good faith. It cannot be seen as a cynical attempt to assert a permanent veto, and nor should it be for any party.
Secondly, in the institutions of the agreement it is important that there is sensitivity in the Irish Government to unionists’ status as a minority, and the Irish Government will need a strategy agreed with the British government about managing the new situation in a balanced way.
Thirdly, the success of the Good Friday Agreement in protecting unionist interests relies on positive UK government engagement. An important aim of the agreement is to have balanced outcomes overseen by engaged governments. Stoking fires of emotion and behaving unilaterally are counter-productive.
Finally, although the calls to change the agreement are understandable, given the success of the Alliance Party that does not self-designate as nationalist or unionist, its delicate and complex balance implies caution about any substantive changes. The rules were created to satisfy nationalist and unionist parties, whose voters still comprise the majority of the electorate. They protect minorities and they are flexible enough to adapt to future political contexts. Any talk of substantive reform should come with a health warning.
The Windsor Framework is a landmark. The DUP’s response will determine whether we will celebrate the Good Friday Agreement’s 25th next month, its very future and that of these islands. The stakes are high.
Etain Tannam is associate professor in international peace studies and fellow, Trinity College Dublin. She is a member of the ARINS Steering Committee. https://www.ria.ie/arins