Jonathan Powell: DUP justifiably aggrieved over Brexit deal

Border in Irish Sea will threaten unionist identity as UK diverges from EU rules

Thirty-seven years ago, I was the Foreign Office desk officer for the negotiations with the Chinese over handing back Hong Kong. We had no cards in our hands.

First, we demanded the UK maintain sovereignty. The Chinese said no. We tried to persuade them we should continue to administer the colony, even if we gave up sovereignty. They said no. Finally, we had to accept the concept of ‘One country, two systems’ demanded by Deng Xiaoping. It worked alright for a while although it doesn’t look so great now.

Boris Johnson, when he became UK prime minister, demanded a hard border in Ireland as his opening position in the negotiations. The EU said no. He retreated to the answer being technology and a Heath-Robinson system of two borders.

The problem is that Brexit was always going to trample on someone's rights in Northern Ireland, and it has ended up being the DUP

The EU said no. In the end he had to accept the original Northern Ireland-only backstop with Northern Ireland staying in the customs union and the single market de facto, although with a few bells and whistles and called something different.


Theresa May described this as a solution “no UK prime minister could ever agree to”. Now we have Northern Ireland as part of one country, two systems.

No one is more delighted than I am that we have escaped the disaster of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. That would have been a major threat to the Belfast Agreement and continued peace.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his team deserve huge credit for their patience, calmness and, above all, imaginative approach in the face of Raider of the Lost Ark-style negotiation tactics by the British side. I hope bilateral relations can be rapidly rebuilt despite the unforgivable things said by the Brexiteers.

Issue of identity

The problem is, however, that Brexit was always going to trample on someone's rights in Northern Ireland, and it has ended up being the DUP.

The Belfast Agreement successfully tackled the issue of identity by building on the open border to allow people to feel British or Irish or both. The UK’s departure from the EU demanded that there be a border somewhere, and that border was always going to undermine one side or the other’s identity and upset the balance in the agreement.

It might be tempting to just say the DUP had it coming, given their misplaced trust in the two-timing Johnson, but that would be a mistake for the long-term peace of the island.

Instead it is important to understand why the DUP object to this deal and to acknowledge that they have a point. The hard border in the Irish Sea is a real problem for them.

It will grow wider over time as the UK diverges in terms of regulation and as we introduce new tariffs. More and more items will have to be on the list drawn up by the new joint committee. And that widening border will threaten their British identity.

What will happen if we have a border poll and, like the Brexit referendum, it divides Northern Ireland 52 per cent to 48 per cent for leaving?

While I am glad the unreasonable idea of a DUP veto on the four-year rolling extension of membership of the single market and customs union proposed by Johnson has been dropped, I think the DUP has a point when the party says that, by introducing simple majority voting for this issue, the deal is in contravention on the rules of cross-community agreement that govern Stormont.

While there is something paradoxical about the majoritarian party being scared of a majority, it is not a good idea to make exceptions to the rules in the Belfast Agreement governing power-sharing on one issue, because others may try to extend the exception to other issues. It would have been better to have stuck to decisions being taken on a cross-community basis.

These apply to changes in the status quo in Northern Ireland and staying in the customs union and single market – which is, of course, the status quo – could be reversed only by a cross-community majority.


At root the DUP fear is that this is the beginning of a slippery slope to a united Ireland which they cannot stop if the principle of the cross-community agreement is undermined.

That is why we have heard threats from the UVF and Arlene Foster meeting the UDA. It is worth remembering that the threat of violence is not just on one side, and it was the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913 that was the beginning of this conflict.

So instead of mocking the unionists as antediluvian troglodytes, we should take their concerns seriously and do what we can do to assuage them if we want to maintain the peace brought about by the Belfast Agreement.

The DUP may well be right in its fear. When we look back, Brexit will probably have done more to bring about a united Ireland than the IRA ever did.

We have already seen the numbers in the polls shift in favour of unity during the process, particularly as Catholic voters shift from supporting membership of the UK to favouring continued membership of the EU.

What will happen if we have a border poll and, like the Brexit referendum, it divides Northern Ireland 52 per cent to 48 per cent for leaving? How then would Ireland cope with incorporating 900,000 people against their wishes?

We should not therefore be triumphalist over the DUP’s misjudgment in trusting Johnson but instead reach out to them and address their concerns.

Keeping the Belfast Agreement working was always like a see-saw: once you get one end settled, you need to rush down the other end to prevent it landing with a bang on the ground. It is time to jump on the other end.

Jonathan Powell was chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007