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Storm on: The DUP should back the latest Brexit deal

Author: Conor Walsh

Editors: Siddharth G. Khare and Soline Germond

Politics in Northern Ireland is complicated; in a nation already burdened with a troubled history, Brexit became an additional—and unwanted—nuisance. The new Windsor framework, announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is the best deal the UK can expect from the EU. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) should support it if they have the interests of the Northern Irish people truly at heart.

Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit, and yet, for the past few years, it has been the central concern of both British diplomacy and Northern Irish politics. The so-called sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland has been attacked by both ardent Brexiteers and the DUP, one of Northern Ireland’s main political parties. Opposition to customs checks on goods moving between the various nations within the United Kingdom is understandable—such checks undermine the sovereignty of the United Kingdom as a whole, as well as Northern Ireland’s place within the union.

The checks are especially controversial since former Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who negotiated the original agreement—promised they would never occur: “only over my dead body will there be a border in the Irish Sea.” To the disappointment of many, and the surprise of nobody, Johnson failed to keep his word.

Almost one year after the most recent elections, Northern Ireland remains without a functioning devolved government. Under power-sharing rules (one of the key components agreed upon in the Good Friday agreement) the government must have both nationalist and unionist representation. Historically, this has taken form through a partnership of Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, the DUP, and the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin. However, the DUP has refused to form a government until the issues surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol have been resolved.

For the DUP, this means scrapping the current sea border which isolates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The Windsor framework achieves this—it ensures that only goods travelling to the Republic of Ireland will require customs checks. It is likely that the DUP will also want a deal which only subjects Northern Ireland to UK law and food standards instead of also being subjected to EU standards, as per the current agreement. The Windsor framework does little to address this; the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will also remain the ultimate arbiter of EU laws applying to Northern Ireland, even if most disputes are expected to be settled in Northern Irish courts. Without addressing these two issues head-on, it is possible that the DUP will be dissatisfied with what Rishi Sunak has branded as the “removal” of the Irish sea border. As far as many unionists are concerned, Northern Ireland is still a special case within the UK.

But Brexit was always going to leave Northern Ireland in a sticky situation, half in the UK and half in the EU, given the nation's bloody history—a “history” that is as recent as twenty-something years ago. This is the best deal that Northern Ireland will get. And while the DUP are right to analyse it with caution, they would be negligent not to get behind it.

Without supporting the new framework, forming Northern Ireland’s executive seems impossible. This is not the first time Northern Ireland has been without a government—power-sharing also came to an abrupt end in 2017. Without any ministers to take critical decisions, or steer the nation towards a strategic future, public services crumbled. The British medical journal found that Northern Ireland experienced a “huge hiatus” in health: staff shortages, excessive waiting lists and a lack of strategy. The UK Government had to take control of day-to-day administration, as it is doing now, and the UK Parliament introduced controversial laws, including the legalisation of abortion—a bill that would not have passed if Northern Ireland had a functioning executive. This was an incredibly damaging period of time for Northern Ireland—politically, economically and socially.

After another year without an executive, even following the May 2022 elections, Northern Ireland faces an uncertain future. If the DUP is serious about governing, it will do its utmost to get behind this framework and to restore the Northern Irish executive. This is—or at least should be—about more than just Brexit. This is about restoring government to the people of Northern Ireland. In the midst of the cost of living crisis, the absence of a functioning government has resulted in thousands of households experiencing delays in much-needed financial support.

The consequences of the executive’s absence are as clear now as they have been in the past. It is understandable that the DUP is unsatisfied with Northern Ireland’s position following Brexit, but it will have to put ideology aside if it truly cares about the people of Northern Ireland.

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