Exclusion of Sinn Féin masks coming focus on DUP decision

If EU and UK agree a new deal, Jeffrey Donaldson faces a difficult choice

The exclusion of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald from a meeting between Northern Ireland’s political parties and the British foreign secretary James Cleverley on Wednesday resulted in an old-fashioned spat between the British government and nationalists, with Sinn Féin refusing to attend without its leader and the SDLP staying away in solidarity.

The row dominated coverage of the talks with Cleverly and Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris. But it also masked something important about the politics of the protocol and EU-UK relations that is quickly emerging in the new year – namely that the DUP is likely to find itself isolated and faced with a very difficult choice in the coming weeks and months.

Events since Christmas have amplified the increasingly audible noises late last year which suggested that the EU and the British government were moving towards an agreement that would resolve the row over the Northern Ireland protocol.

On Monday, Cleverly and Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner with responsibility for negotiating with the British government on Brexit issues, agreed a significant breakthrough on a system of supplying British data on goods entering Northern Ireland (and therefore the EU’s single market) from Britain, thus enabling the EU to drastically reduce the number of checks that take place. Both sides suggested that this could clear the way for working out their rest of their difficulties over the protocol.


On the same day Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin spoke to the leaders of the North’s parties, with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson describing the talks as “useful”.

Last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made headlines in the UK media when he suggested that the protocol may have been “too strict”, before clarifying that he was not suggesting a change in the actual text of the protocol but rather a relaxation of its implementation.

This is precisely what the EU has been suggesting, and it was interesting that the response from Downing Street knew exactly what Varadkar meant. “Certainly we have said for some time now that we’ve always felt it was possible to enact the protocol in a way that was flexible, and so obviously those comments are welcome,” a spokesman for British prime minister Rishi Sunak said.

Senior sources on both sides of the Irish Sea and in Brussels agree that while a deal is by no means certain, it is now possible in a way that it has not been before. And it is very clear that a push to achieve it is under way.

If it is successful, and an agreement is reached, that will mean Donaldson must make a decision – accept the new deal or continue to oppose a reformed protocol regime, thus keeping the Stormont power-sharing institutions in the deep freeze.

Both governments are keen, though not desperate, to get the DUP on board. That is the message that Varadkar and Martin will convey today when they meet Northern leaders in Belfast, and that is likely the message that Cleverly and Heaton-Harris gave in the meetings on Wednesday.

The DUP is unlikely to be upset at Sinn Féin’s exclusion; it may even allow the message to be delivered more clearly. But if a deal is indeed done it is the DUP that will be in the spotlight.