The DUP opposed a key part of the Windsor Framework in a parliamentary vote last week, but the EU and UK are pushing ahead with implementation of the agreement, signing the formal documents in London on Friday. They are correct to do so. It is unfortunate that the agreement has not cleared the way for the DUP to re-enter Stormont. Contacts will continue between the UK government and the party, which has not yet said a definitive “no”, though it has indicated it will seek further concessions.
These seem unlikely to emerge as the UK and EU will not re-enter talks. But the DUP should realise that the structure of the Northern Ireland Protocol does give scope for further problems to be ironed out. And the Windsor Framework has done much to improve the operation of the protocol and to meet their objections. The small size of the Conservative rebellion in last week’s vote in the House of Commons shows that the DUP position has limited support in London. And UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has persuaded the EU that, unlike his predecessors, he wanted to do a deal and move on.
The protocol was, of course, necessitated by Brexit, which the DUP supported. In the push by former prime minister Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done”, he ignored unionist concerns and agreed the protocol. At the time neither side had fully assessed the practical implications. Trade is complicated and governed by detailed rules; the protocol, on the other hand, was a hastily-contrived political deal. Trouble was inevitable.
The Windsor Framework attempts to address a lot of the practical and political problems of the protocol. It offers a way forward within the context of the Belfast Agreement. By pushing ahead, the UK government and the EU are playing a long game, hoping that wider acceptance in Northern Ireland will eventually get the DUP on board. One difficulty, however, is that the political uncertainty caused by the DUP’s decision to continue to boycott Stormont may in itself limit the economic gains. Uncertainty is never good for investment.
Northern Ireland needs its politicians to be doing their job, but the DUP veto is stopping this from happening. It seems a failed strategy: the deal will not be renegotiated again; there is no obvious alternative way forward; and unionism loses the chance to work the Windsor Framework and the Belfast Agreement, both of which have arrangements to protect minorities.
As the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement approaches, its future is clouded in uncertainty. Having invested political capital in the Windsor Framework, the EU and UK believe their best option is to try to make the deal work. But in the absence of a functioning Stormont this will not be easy – and if this continues it will, in time, raise other difficult questions.