Matthew Allen is a DUP member from Lagan Valley
‘THIS AGREEMENT IS ABOUT YOUR FUTURE.’ That was the message on the 1998 Belfast Agreement – delivered en masse to Northern Ireland homes, my parents’ and grandparents’ included, that Spring. I was born in October the year after the vote: a peace baby. Though there will be no ’98-style plebiscite on the Windsor Framework, I still feel a civic obligation to digest it and offer some thoughts.
Almost everyone who voted in the ‘98 Referendum was confronted with unfamiliar legal concepts. 25 years on, and most of us cannot say that we have approached the Windsor Framework as constitutional experts. I’m just an everyday voter, an ordinary DUP member. For several caffeine-fuelled hours, then, I waded through the Government’s command paper as best I could, then the political declaration.
On a side note, it seems to me there are those who think only people who can grasp legal text – among whose hallowed ranks I, sadly, do not feature – are allowed to have an opinion on the Windsor Framework. To the contrary, the Belfast Agreement Referendum was based on the contents of a command paper, and everyone had a voice in that.
And so, man on the street or professor of law, the whole populace is entitled to hold forth on the Windsor Framework. I have to say that I welcomed it. As a DUP member, it speaks to my party’s persistence on the Protocol matter that an improvement on Johnson’s deal has arrived.
We, the pro-Leave party, can celebrate what Rishi Sunak has negotiated with our heads held high. The DUP showed vision in its contribution to the 2016 campaign. While other parties plumped for the status quo, the DUP saw the chance of a Twenty-First Century democratic revival, free from Brussels and its diktats. More power to Westminster. More power to Stormont.
Yes, more power to Northern Ireland’s democratically chosen Assembly members to work on devolved issues. That’s what it was always about. Politicians can only deploy this power, however, within government. Sometimes the right option is to drive a hard bargain in exchange for participation. 2002-07 is a good example. 2022-23 is another. Ultimately, though, there comes a time to seal the deal.
In 2006, the DUP was instrumental to the St Andrews Agreement, which removed the gun from Irish politics. The Belfast Agreement had failed to do this, and so the DUP deserves immense credit for the breakthrough St Andrews represented. After his brief time in office as First Minister, the DUP’s founder, Doctor Paisley, give an interview to Sir David Frost, where he touched on the St Andrews Agreement.
Reverend Paisley reflects on the negotiations prior to the deal. These talks resulted in Sinn Fein commitments, elusive until 2006, to the Rule of Law. Paisley formed an Executive, as he had undertaken to do, when Sinn Fein had satisfied these conditions. “I could not, as a man of truth,” remembers Paisley, “say that wasn’t enough.” Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, provided our party leadership feels the seven DUP tests for a deal are sufficiently met, has a chance to do likewise.
That said, we must be realistic. A perfect withdrawal deal is no more likely to be found than a fluffy purple unicorn. As Keir Starmer observed on the day when His Majesty’s Government published the Windsor Framework, “it’s a compromise.” It is only proper that it should be so, given that 56% of our neighbours, friends and family voted to remain – albeit, in a UK-wide referendum.
Even a compromise is a win if it results in a durable Assembly. The DUP’s manifesto for 2022, the party’s programme for a five-year mandate, set out our five-point plan for Northern Ireland. In the year since that election, we can proudly claim to have kept a significant pledge to the people who supported us. I, for one, have no regrets that I cast my ballot in Lagan Valley for the DUP.
‘Use your vote to send a message,’ we said: ‘The Irish Sea border must go.’ The Protocol has now given way to measures that restore our place in this Union’s internal market, namely the green lane system, consistent with our manifesto – that is, if, and when, the Windsor Framework enters into force.
For me, the grand prize in this new package is the Stormont Brake, based on the Petition of Concern, which will carve out a unique role for the DUP team in Parliament Buildings. In future Assembly campaigns, the party’s readiness to pull the Stormont Brake will, I’m sure, form part of our election pitch.
Eurosceptic voters, for this reason, will have a perennial reason to vote for the DUP. That our competitors cannot hope for sufficient seats at Stormont, where two parties need a combined 30 signatures to pull the Brake, nor have the political will to stand against European edicts, is a strong electoral message.
Where do we go from here? Well, we now have other promises to keep in the four years until the 2027 election: (1) to fix the NHS; (2) to grow the economy; (3) to keep our schools world-class; and (4) to help working families. These things are, and always have been, every bit as important as our battle to bin the Protocol.
The DUP that I joined is not a single-issue party. ‘We want to ensure that the people in every district and community benefit and see their standard of living improve and their way of life become more enjoyable,’ states our manifesto. Times are tough, and our people need all the social protections a reinstated Executive can offer them, an Executive with DUP ministers at its heart.
Finally, my voice is only that of a rank-and-file party member. There are many with more clout in the party than I. Nevertheless, I hope the leadership will consider all opinions offered in good faith over the weeks ahead. All deserve a say, not simply the loudest and most strident among us. Whichever decision the party leadership settle on will be the result of a thorough consultation, and I will respect it.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.