Working towards Irish Unity




We need to see courage from Sunak and Donaldson this week

Amid the wreckage of the British economy, collapsing public services, sewage-strewn beaches, broken railways and interminable industrial action, Rishi Sunak has a glimmer of hope.

A deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol inches into view.

It’s not perfect, from his point of view, with a big chunk of his backbenchers grumbling about the residual role of the European Court of Justice adjudicating on trade disputes.

But there’s clearly a sense, an energy – momentum – building towards a deal over the next few days.

It will be a minor triumph for Sunak, left to clean-up the mess of his immediate predecessors, who, having agreed to the original protocol, then refused to implement it and demanded a rewrite.

Whatever anyone thinks of the current incumbent of No 10, he is at least a responsible adult, certainly when compared to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

But his problem is getting not one, but two deals over the line.

First, he needs to find an accord with the European Union about the operation of the protocol, avoiding retaliatory measures over the British government’s refusal to implement the original deal.

Second, he needs to sell this new deal to unionists as a basis for restoring the devolved institutions.

His problem is that it is far from certain he can please both Brussels and Ballymena.

If his package of reforms does not meet Europe’s expectations, then the prospect of a trade war becomes unavoidable – the last thing the fragile British economy can afford – and turn Kent into the world’s biggest lorry park.

Siren voices in the Conservative party, notably from Lord Frost, architect (if that is not too ludicrous a description) of the original protocol, wants Sunak to reject anything that does not meet their unobtainable demands.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph the other day, Frost sad that ‘no deal is still better than a bad one.’

But as well as trying to placate his own irreconcilables, Sunak has to try and please the DUP. Yet rather than carry the entire responsibility of doing so, Jeffrey Donaldson should be expected to do some of the heavy lifting.

He has gotten off lightly so far.

He knows Sunak’s room for manoeuvre is minimal and that revisions to the operation of the protocol are the best he can hope to prise out of these tortuous negotiations.

Still, he has allowed the DUP to be pulled out of orbit as a (semi) serious political party by the two James’ – Bryson and Allister – and done nothing to challenge their flights of fantasy.

The former, a self-appointed voice of loyalism, has been successful on social media in whipping up opposition to nothing less than the complete destruction of the protocol.

While the latter – leader of Traditional Unionist Voice – ready to offer an uncompromising, full-fat version hardline Unionism – remains a potent electoral threat to any backsliding from Donaldson.

From his vantage point in the House of Commons, the DUP leader can see the political calculation that Sunak must make.

More politically adroit than his party, he knows that Northern Ireland constitutes around 1.5% of UK GDP and unionists only make-up around 1% of the total population.

No British PM is going to risk damaging the entire British economy to please such a tiny and marginal audience.

So Donaldson and Sunak have the same dilemma: They both need to sell a compromise as the best outcome achievable – without dire effects – to hardliners who neither care, nor understand the consequences of their inflexibility.

In this situation the only course is to use the moment – the hope that this impasse is finally being resolved – to plough through the opposition and displace them back to the fringe with a bow wave.

The majority of Tory MPs will be heartily sick of hearing about Northern Ireland – a place they neither know or care such about – while the other Northern Ireland parties, including the Ulster Unionists, will  rejoice if a deal is done and the assembly and executive can be restored.

This is a week when political courage from Sunak and Donaldson should not only be required – but demanded.

Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it will Come About’ and ‘What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division’