The DUP is under intense pressure to end their boycott of the power-sharing institutions in the North of Ireland after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak admitted he was a “over the moon” at a deal agreed with the EU to end seven years of tensions over the implementation of Brexit.
The EU made unprecedented concessions on a range of issues affecting the north of Ireland to end the unionist blockade of the political institutions at Stormont. It was formally agreed at Windsor in England by EU President Ursula von der Leyen.
But emboldened by the success of its strategy so far, the DUP continues to make demands, and it remains to be seen if the party will return to Stormont while Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill is in a position to take up her role as First Minister following elections last May.
Claims by unionists and hardline anti-EU Tories that the Irish protocol of Brexit created an “Irish Sea border” have now been put to rest. A ‘green channel’ for goods destined for British jurisdiction is one of several major changes to be introduced by the deal agreed at Windsor Castle on Tuesday.
The ‘Windsor Framework’ proposes only a possibility of checks on ‘red channel’ goods destined to cross the border through Ireland, the free movement of parcels, food products, medicines and pets, and full control of all tax and subsidy rates for London.
Another demand related to the potential implementation of future EU rules in the North of Ireland over the heads of unionists has been conceded with a powerful new veto against new EU legislation called the ‘Stormont Brake’. The veto process can be initiated by a ‘petition of concern’ signed by 30 Stormont Assembly members from two parties, subject to certification by the London government.
Risking the fury of Brexit opponents, Sunak described the deal as making the north of Ireland “the world’s most exciting economic zone” inside both the EU and Britain’s market areas.
The DUP said it would not be ‘blackmailed or cajoled’ and said the deal must be viewed with “extreme caution” in the face of what it said was “spin and propaganda”. They also hit out a meeting between the King of England and Van der Leyen at Windsor Castle on Monday, branding it “deeply regrettable” and counterproductive.
DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party woud consider the deal and respond in time. “I see opportunity of course, in terms of growing the Northern Ireland economy but is this the right framework in which to do it?,” he asked. He said the DUP would take legal advice and “want to be sure that what is on the table does what it says and that it is good for Northern Ireland”.
PM Sunak has described the deal as non-negotiable, but DUP MPs Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr have continued to look for further gains, specifically around the new veto powers. While declaring vindication for his stance so far, Wilson said he “fears our position in the United Kingdom is not going to be restored” by the agreement.
Sinn Féin has welcomed the deal and called for the DUP to get back to work. Party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said there was “no justification for the DUP to continue this reckless and damaging boycott of democracy”.
People Before Profit described the deal as a reward for the DUP’s assembly boycott, while Aontú councillor Denise Mullen said it was “a disgrace” that the DUP had been able to hold the democratic process hostage. “Stormont is in urgent need of reform,” she said.
There was international support in the form of US President Joe Biden, who described the deal as “an essential step to ensuring that the hard-earned peace and progress of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is preserved and strengthened”.
London’s former Brexit secretary David Davis described the deal as “a spectacular negotiating success”, a pattern that was repeated by Tory MPs throughout the week. Even the most hardline Tory Brexiteers have been expressing their support, most prominently David Frost, but who grudging described the continuing role of the EU in the north of Ireland as a “bitter pill to swallow”.
At a press conference at Stormont on Wednesday, Mary Lou McDonald said Sinn Féin was preparing for a return of the Assembly and Six County Executive.
“It think a great tribute should be paid to the people and to the electorate who have been incredibly patient and I think at times incredibly frustrated with the entire political process. We need government and we need it now,” she said.
She added: “All eyes will be on the north of Ireland, and the question it seems to us, for people in politics is, what do you want the world to see?
“Do you want them to see a vista of opportunity and positivity or not. We want these opportunities for every community and all of our people and we hope that our colleagues from other parties are in that same state of mind.”
“Perhaps the biggest reform that we need now in this moment is a bit of reformed thinking among some. The idea for example that endlessly you can meander along in a state of limbo is not politically real. The world doesn’t work like that.
“If I had a magic wand, which sadly I don’t have, but if I did and could wish for one thing, I would wish for that level of realism to dawn.”
Deputy leader Michelle O’Neill described the economic potential of this moment as “enormous” and an “opportunity not to be missed”.
She added: “Now we find ourselves on the other end of this negotiation, there is enormous potential for us now, a potential that must be grasped.
“I rarely find myself agreeing with the British Prime Minister, but I do think that the opportunity we now have of access to both markets has to be grabbed on to with both hands, and there is no time to waste because we’re about to attend in Washington DC a number of events that will be to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, but as you all know, that’s about encouraging investment here, that’s about the economic potential of here.
“We have in quick succession a deal being done on the protocol, we go to the States next week to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, very quickly in the aftermath of that comes the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
“The economic potential for us here is enormous and this is a moment not to be missed.”
VISA PLAN CONDEMNED
Meanwhile, there have been calls for Britain to drop its Brexit-related plan for an ‘Electronic Travel Authorisation’ (ETA) for international and non-Irish EU citizens crossing the border.
Derry and Strabane Council has strongly rejected the London government’s proposal to introduce a new control for crossing the border as “ludicrous”. The visa-style requirement did not feature in the ‘Windsor Framework’ deal.
Sinn Féin councillor John McGowan described the ETA as a “direct attack on the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement” and noted that it would make cross-border work in areas such as tourism, health, and education much more difficult.
He said many European visitors do not have passports, and it would make it more difficult for visitors to travel to the north under British law.
“It’s going to cost jobs, it’s going to cost thousands of jobs in this part of the island if we don’t do something about it,” he warned.
Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly said that Brexit had shown that partition remains the fundamental problem on the island.
“What Brexit has done is highlight the absurdity of the British border in Ireland and that’s why we find all these problems here. The Good Friday Agreement has just been an updating of British rule in Ireland, it’s another step and in a counter democratic process,” he said.
“The reality is no matter what way we dress it up it isn’t working. Partition hasn’t worked, and partition never will work. So as long as we have partition then we’re going to have these problems and all the problems that went before it and further problems.”