Working towards Irish Unity




Unionists need to accept this is as good as it gets

So, there we have it: the Windsor Framework. The oldest trick in the book is to rebrand a problem.

 It might still be the Northern Ireland Protocol (Reformed Version), but it now bears the Monarch’s secular name.

It’s hardly subtle. Rishi Sunak has set a purity test for die-hard unionists: Get with the programme or offend the King.

Forget all the micro details about what all this means for the export of seed potatoes, and dog passports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the macro picture is what matters most.

As I have found myself writing repeatedly over the past 18 months, no British government was ever going to risk a trade war with the European Union to meet unionist hard-liners’ demands for the Protocol to be scrapped.

And, so, it has come to be. Constitutional obscurantism has collided into realpolitik and the result is brutal.

The Protocol was only ever going to be reformed. Unionist opposition to the very principle of it was ignored and it now remains, in diluted form, for evermore.

Certainly, for as long as Northern Ireland lasts.

The guts of Rishi Sunak’s deal – red and green lanes with the British sharing real time data with EU officials on what’s crossing the Irish Sea – was on the table as far back as October 2021 when Brussels and Dublin offered it up.

Sunak has augmented the package of reforms, winning a few more concessions around control of state aid and VAT.

But his convoluted ‘Stormont brake’ – allowing the assembly to reject new EU legislation – requires cross-community consent (which it will never get) and can be vetoed by the British government even if it does.

It’s a brake in the sense that you have to get all the passengers in a car to agree before you are allowed to put your foot down.

Meanwhile, the role of the European Court of Justice as final arbiter of trade and regulatory disputes remains.

A point made bluntly by Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen, at her joint press conference with Rishi Sunak launching the new concordat.

The outcome – maddeningly predictable though it is – reveals the two blind spots that Unionists have.

The first, is never seeing the big picture.

Sunak has confirmed that the British interest and that of the UK are not the same thing. Northern Ireland is to be treated differently for the greater good of the British economy.

With Northern Ireland comprising as little as 1.5% of UK GDP, and with unionists making up the same proportion of the population, the tail was never going to be allowed to wag the dog in the end.

The second, is trusting the Brits.

If your political allies’ amount to a few Tory hardliners like Peter Bone and Mark Francois – figures of ridicule even in the loopy world of the ERG – then you are ultimately on a hiding to nothing.

But unionists fall for it every single time.

Boris told them there would only be an Irish Sea border over his dead body. Then he promised them a bridge to Scotland.

This pattern of being codded stretches much further back.

It is usually Tory governments that shaft unionists, with Heath scrapping Stormont and Thatcher lumbering them with the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

As the DUP mulls over how to respond, the problem they face is that the vibe in Westminster is now wholly positive.

A rebellion of the European Research Group has melted away. Symbolically, figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Brexit secretary, are on-board.

The front pages of the British newspapers are unfailingly sympathetic to Sunak today, with The Times heralding a ‘Brexit Breakthrough’ as the Daily Mail posits ‘Has Rishi Done the Impossible?’ 

The Westminster village is just relieved the Brexit saga is finally over, personified by Northern Ireland Minister, Steve Baker, saying it had exacted a terrible toll on his mental health.

This deal is here to stay and it isn’t going to get any better. Time, then, for the Jeffrey Donaldson to paint on a smile, take credit for forcing fresh negotiations, pocket the concessions, accept the outcome and lead his troops back to Stormont.

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