Photo; The Irish Sea
Many unionists are doing what unionists do, poring over a legal text. Not all of them may be clear in their own minds why they’re doing so. Looking for fresh evidence of betrayal or points that need improving? For one, Sam McBride has delivered a glass half empty exposure of Rishi Sunak’s bouncy oversell. The border in the Irish Sea may have been replaced by the green channel but it is alive and well in the digital world.
And then there’s the Stormont Brake
The Stormont Brake does more than just give Northern Ireland a say over new EU laws.It means they can block them.
Only if the petition of concern is ratified by a cross community vote and the UK government approves.And they would have only a fortnight to get their ducks in a row. The brake would apply only in “ exceptional circumstances “ or if they judge that “an addition to EU regulations is proposed.” Three “onlys” in succession. A high bar but not one to which NI business would necessarily object within the single market. But yes the EU could respond to a brake it disliked by reference to the ultimate arbiter the European Court of Justice. They ultimately call those particular shots.
The DUP would be wrong to make a fetish of a new and complicated way of saying no. The practical workings of the Framework are recognised as a great improvement. They should concentrate on making them work better still. The system for doing so is available in the protocol committees and should be activated as often as necessary.
All this legalism desperately needs context. The real experts are the business people who will work the new arrangements and broadly welcome them. Are the DUP listening? Perverse bureaucracy may be further mitigated over time in the specialist and joint committees where NI will have a voice. But here’s the big thing: if the DUP wish to improve the new arrangements or even oppose them effectively they will have to return to the Assembly.
Fears are being raised if the UK and EU continue to diverge. Will this supposed new level playing field turn out to be a battle ground? This remains to be seen. But the wider motives for ironing out Protocol problems are becoming clear. This government is working for a closer relationship with the EU in which divergence is limited. Unrepentant Remainers and the SNP are even objecting that NI alone will enjoy the benefits of dual access to both markets and will press for an ever closer relationship with the EU. The buzz phrase is “ dynamic alignment.” Under a Labour government watch this space.
Unionist dissenters should bear in mind the big picture. Sunak has transformed the relationship with the EU. Note Ursula von der Leyn’s “dear Rishi” in Windsor Guildhall. Sunak’s concentration on wooing the DUP may represent the high water mark of Westminster’s support for Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. It enjoys cross party support. Nationalists are tolerating the rhetoric and seem satisfied that it is a balanced deal endorsed by Dublin. .
Westminster will approve the Windsor Framework .Trading relationships will remain complex between our islands and within our own island. For them to work smoothly, trust, openness and candour will be essential in the interests of all our people. More than any others these are qualities which the DUP should keep in mind. If they don’t they will be left behind and bear great responsibility for blighting our future.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London