The writer was chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997-2007
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, now faces an invidious choice over the so-called “Windsor framework”, the deal to reset post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Is he going to channel the Ian Paisley who, as leader of the DUP, bellowed “Ulster says No” to Margaret Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985? Or the Ian Paisley who said yes to the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 and set up a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness which brought prosperity and stability to Northern Ireland for more than a decade?
I spent a good part of my adult life negotiating with the DUP over Northern Irish issues, and the problem they always face at this stage is knowing when to twist and when to hold.
Based on experience, you wouldn’t bet they would always choose the right option, especially when under pressure from DUP dissident Jim Allister to their right, crying betrayal. This time, however, the answer should be clear.
There is no doubt that unionists were betrayed by prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019. He grabbed an agreement with the EU that sacrificed their interests so he could get to a quick deal for his English Brexit supporters and win an election. Some of us pointed out at the time that this agreement would cause unionists serious problems by undermining their identity.
Brexit was always going to affect the identity of one or other of Northern Ireland’s communities. If the UK was going to leave the EU single market and the customs union, there had to be a border somewhere, regardless of the magical thinking of Brexiters who claimed it could be provided by non-existent technology.
If the decision had been to put that border on the island of Ireland, between north and south, it would have been a disaster for the Good Friday Agreement, the point of which was to remove the poison of competing identities from politics in the province.
But it was, and is, wrong to pretend that by putting the border in the Irish Sea there were no consequences for unionists — who would then be separated from the rest of the UK.
There is an unattractive tendency in some higher reaches of British politics to ignore the views of unionists because their traditions seem odd and old fashioned. That is wrong — they have as much of a right to have their views respected as anyone else.
The DUP is right to take its time to study the agreement concluded on Monday. Its approach has always been that of a doubting Thomas, wanting to check and double check the detail of any agreement to see if it is being cheated.
They shouldn’t get lost in the weeds, however. When they look at this agreement they will see that it solves the practical problems posed by the application of Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol. It meets the “Sainsbury’s test” they originally set, which requires that people in Northern Ireland can buy the same goods in a supermarket in Lisburn as they could in Lowestoft.
The Windsor framework meets the other tests they set as well. It establishes a green lane and goods can flow freely both ways between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It protects Northern Ireland’s place in the union, which can only be changed by a majority of the people of the province. And it provides for a greater democratic role for politicians from the province in the application of the protocol.
What the new framework does not do, and could never do, is remove the border altogether. There has to be a border somewhere, and the unionists have no alternative suggestion of where it should be.
They would be wise therefore to accept this agreement, which will provide Northern Ireland with much needed stability and the chance to attract investment and jobs while making that border to all intents and purposes invisible.
Even if the framework does not deliver everything the DUP wants, they should not let the best be the enemy of the good. It does protect the Good Friday Agreement and it does protect their interests. Demanding the negotiations be reopened won’t work, and they will find themselves stuck in a dead end with no assembly at Stormont and permanent political instability in Northern Ireland.
Donaldson walked out of the Good Friday negotiations just as the deal was being struck in 1998. This time he has an opportunity to redeem himself, just as Paisley did by transforming himself from Dr No in 1985 to Dr Yes in 2006.