The real choices emerging: implement a Protocol deal without unionist consent; or accept a DUP veto on the UK resetting its relations with the EU

24 hours on, the chances of success for Rishi Sunak’s mission are no clearer.  Optimism however has the edge on the EU stage.  As its cheerleader the FT describes it solving the Protocol quandary presages an entire reset of the UK’s future relations with the EU, quoting for instance the veteran diplomat Kim Darroch:

It will make a real, positive, difference in Northern Ireland. It will stand up Sumac’s claim to be a problem solver. It will get us back into the Horizon Europe scheme, crucial for British universities. It will improve UK-EU atmospherics and should open the way to further deals to free up trade and travel between the UK and EU. And it will take the brake off UK-US relations.” Mandelson agreed, saying that a deal could open the way for US President Joe Biden to come to Belfast for events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and then on to London for a state visit. He said that Joe Kennedy, the scion of the Kennedy dynasty appointed by Biden as an economic envoy to Northern Ireland, would be “very important” in bringing in inward investment to the region.

Heady stuff. But Rishi Sunak’s diplomacy sends out mixed messages. His ringing declarations of British support for Ukraine at the Munich security conference contrast with his furtive visit to Belfast.  His short exchanges with other parties gave cover to substantial talks with the DUP in two separate sessions and a brief soundbite report back in London. This was far from the choreography of triumph and was equally matched by Jeffrey Donaldson.

Today in Munich Sunak says here are “still challenges to work through”. He insists that no deal has been done with the EU, but that there’s an “understanding” of what needs to be done.

So Will Sunak champion the DUP’s reservations – whatever they are precisely – and walk away, if the EU rejects them?  Surely not; the process will continue. But as Sunak has put his reputation on the line it surely cannot go on for long. He may have to settle for a deal with the EU and rejection by the DUP. The chances of resetting the UK’s relations with Europe would be too good to throw away for the for the sake of NI unionists.

What then would that mean for Northern Ireland?   Options include implementation of the deal, with GB-NI checks as agreed for trusted traders with border posts at the ports, administered directly by the British government, raising the chances of confrontation with the DUP and loyalists. The UK government could call an Assembly election in effect as a referendum on the deal. Or further stalling.

On the face of it it’s hard to see how  number 3 of the DUP’s seven tests can be met even with agreement on green and red channels. “There shall be no border in the Irish Sea”. This is the most obvious area of compromise, although even the green channel seems to require a plethora of paperwork.

3 of the 7 tests would give Stormont a big say. Has the UKG adopted the gist of   them and will the EU agree?  Granted that they may lack potency as there as there is no insistence in the text on cross community consent in any of them whatever the DUP  think they imply. So would the DUP try to slap a petition of concern on any simple majority approval they dissented from? Seems too threadbare a tactic to hang on such momentous decisions. Nor can you imagine Macron, Scholz and von der Leyn pondering over of DUP tactics with Sunak.

The choices without DUP agreement will clarify soon. Over then to the DUP.


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