Working towards Irish Unity




How daft is the DUP?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course.

The answer is ‘pretty daft.’

After being buttered-up by British ministers on innumerable occasions since Brexit – only to find themselves let down more times than a well-bucket – they have now relented from their two-year boycott of the Good Friday Agreement institutions and returned to Stormont.

Tail between legs, as their loyalist critics would doubtless have it – accepting a deal over the so-called Irish Sea border than leaves Northern Ireland with, well, an Irish Sea border.

But what I mean is, how gullible are they?

As part of the choreography for getting them back to work, the British government has stuffed their mouths with gold, staking the new executive with a £3.3 billion bung.

In addition, they have published the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ command paper – dripping with unionist language and talking points – with a few tweaks here and there to the operation of the Windsor Framework née Northern Ireland Protocol.

As a sweetener, they have just published the text of a ‘humble address’ – an obscure device for Parliament to formally address the Sovereign – which will be debated tomorrow and Tuesday in both Houses of Parliament.

The motive is clear: Dress up Jeffrey Donaldson’s epic U-turn as a political victory by reinforcing Parliament’s affection for Northern Ireland.

Will they fall for it?

In case we were ever in any doubt, unionists rather like the Crown, so, for the second time, Rishi Sunak is shoe-horning King Charles into the mix to reassure Jeffrey Donaldson and his troops that they are valued and wanted as part of the United Kingdom.

(This is, of course, the same monarch who willingly gave his name to the unspeakable Windsor Framework against which the DUP has been rampaging for the past year).

The motion to be debated is 103 words long (on my count), serendipitously representing a word for every year of Northern Ireland’s existence.

But the fine detail the text is not as Orange as the overall intention is meant to be. This is what it says:

‘That an humble address be presented to His Majesty welcoming the return of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, re-affirming the importance of upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in all its strands, acknowledging the foundational importance of the Acts of Union 1800, including the economic provisions under article 6 of those acts, and recognising that, consistent with section 23(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, executive power in Northern Ireland shall continue to be vested in His Majesty, and that joint authority is not provided for in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 in respect of the UK and Irish governments.

Okay, let’s break it down.

There are essentially three points contained therein. The first, is the mention of upholding the Good Friday Agreement ‘in all its strands.’

I quite agree. We all want that.

Especially the key part – the legal obligation no less – to call a border poll in due course. A useful reminder for the Secretary of State (pro tem), Chris Heaton-Harris, who was rather dismissive of this requirement when launching Safeguarding the Union a few of weeks ago.

The second point – ‘acknowledging the foundational importance of the Acts of Union 1800’ – is merely window-dressing and hardly amounts to strengthening of Article Six demanded in the DUP’s infamous ‘seven tests’ of how the Windsor Framework must be made more palatable.

As we now know, there will be fewer checks and less paperwork at port checkpoints – something offered-up by the EU nearly two years ago – but there will still be some checks. There will still be border infrastructure. Ergo, there will still be a border.

On this occasion the TUV leader, Jim Allister, is perfectly correct (in the sense that he’s like the proverbial stopped clock). He dismissed the humble address as ‘meaningless nonsense’ and ‘frankly insulting to unionists.’

He pointed out that this is not a legislative measure so ‘does nothing to undo the damage done by the Protocol. It does nothing to restore our place within the UK internal market.’

The third part of note is the reference that ‘executive power’ shall continue to be ‘vested in His Majesty’ and that ‘joint authority is not provided for’ in the Good Friday Agreement.
Yes and, well, yes.

In the British system, executive power (the government) is derived from the Crown in Parliament, as any undergraduate politics student will know. In which respect the wording amounts to nothing more than a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Similarly, there is no provision for ‘joint authority’ in the agreement. But, then again, define what joint authority actually means?

Making Northern Ireland a co-owned and managed condominium is not explicit, but it is licit that British ministers will work with their Irish counterparts to ensure the smooth running of the place as co-guarantors of the agreement.

In modern public service management, it’s called co-design. This is how Northern Ireland will be governed if there are any further stoppages. No need to have Irish ministers’ cars pelted with eggs by loyalist fanatics as they visit Stormont for talks.

Not when dual ownership of strategic decisions and the co-design of policies can be conducted on a Zoom call these days.

So, is this it? Is the DUP’s cloying, desperate need to validate its Britishness fulfilled by this archaic parliamentary game-playing?
The irony is that this stunt (and stunt it most certainly is) is not actually needed.

It was confected by British officials assuming Jeffrey Donaldson would have faced greater difficulty in selling his U-turn and re-entering the devolved institutions.

What actually happened is that two-thirds of unionist voters were glad to see the return of Stormont and a focus on everyday issues.
Donaldson has spent the better part of two years hiding from his shadow rather than facing down the Brysons and Allisters. When he eventually did, they were revealed to be paper tigers.

No defections and no big internal splits in the DUP. A four-point dip in the latest poll is the only damage that Donaldson’s seen.

So, from big cats to small ones.

Like Schodinger’s moggy, the DUP believes that a border isn’t a border, even when it’s obviously a border.

Or that British ministers, patting them on the head in the Commons tomorrow, displays any real support for unionists in the long-term.

Like I said, they’re pretty daft.

Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About’