DUP must not lose sight of the benefits of the agreement with Northern Ireland

The writer was British Chief Negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, now faces an odious choice over the so-called “Windsor framework”, the deal to redefine post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Will he 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 Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin that brought prosperity and stability to Northern Ireland for over a decade?

I’ve spent much of my adult life negotiating with the DUP on Northern Irish issues, and the problem they always face at this stage is knowing when to twist and when to hold back.

Based on experience, you wouldn’t bet that they would always choose the right option, especially when pressed by DUP maverick Jim Allister on their right, weeping with betrayal. This time, though, the answer should be clear.

There is no doubt that trade unionists were betrayed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019. He got a deal with the EU that sacrificed his interests so that he could reach 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 serious problems for trade unionists by undermining their identity.

Brexit would always affect the identity of one community or another in Northern Ireland. If the UK was to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, there had to be a border somewhere, regardless of the whimsical thinking of Brexiters who claimed it could be provided by non-existent technology.

Had the decision been to place that border on the island of Ireland, between north and south, it would have been a disaster for the Good Friday Agreement, whose aim was to remove the poison of competing identities from provincial politics.

But it was, and is, wrong to pretend that placing the border in the Irish Sea had no consequences for trade unionists – who would then be cut off from the rest of the UK.

There is an unattractive tendency at some higher levels of British politics to ignore the views of trade unionists because their traditions seem strange and antiquated. This is wrong – they have as much right to have their opinions respected as anyone else.

The DUP is right to dedicate itself to studying the agreement signed on Monday. His approach has always been that of a Doubtful Thomas, wanting to check and double-check the details of any deal to see if he’s being ripped off.

They shouldn’t get lost in the weeds, though. When you look at this agreement, you will see that it solves the practical problems posed by the application of the Johnson protocol in Northern Ireland. It meets the originally established “Sainsbury test”, which requires people in Northern Ireland to be able to buy the same goods in a supermarket in Lisburn as in Loweroft.

The Windsor framework also meets the other tests they set. It establishes a greenway 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 foresees a greater democratic protagonism of the province’s politicians in the application of the protocol.

What the new structure does not, and could never do, is remove the boundary completely. There has to be a border somewhere, and unionists have no alternative suggestions as to where that should be.

They would be wise, therefore, to accept this deal, which will provide Northern Ireland with much-needed stability and a chance to attract investment and jobs, making this border invisible for all intents and purposes.

Even if the structure doesn’t deliver everything the DUP wants, they shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. He protects the Good Friday Agreement and protects your interests. Demanding that talks be reopened will not work, and they will find themselves at a dead end, with no assembly in Stormont and permanent political instability in Northern Ireland.

Donaldson walked out of the Good Friday talks just as the deal was closing in 1998. This time around, he has an opportunity to redeem himself, just as Paisley did when he transformed from Dr. Not in 1985 in Dr. Yes in 2006.

Video: Northern Ireland tries to heal a legacy of separation | FT movie

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