No one ever lost money betting against the bad faith of the DUP. The party is founded on one principle and one principle only: “Ulster is British”. Nothing else matters – not the province’s nationalist majority, not the business community, not the good opinion of all but a tiny handful of their colleagues in the Palace of Westminster. They cling to their version of Britishness like sinners to the old rugged cross.
Today’s announcement that all eight DUP MPs, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, will vote against the Windsor Framework so tortuously negotiated by Rishi Sunak is nothing less than a slap in the face for the prime minister. It is confirmation that hardline unionists in Northern Ireland would rather die than submit to any arrangement that admits to a role for Brussels (and Dublin!) in their affairs. And if that means telling the British Government, even, by extension, the King, to sod off, then so be it. It is a price they are prepared to pay, whatever the cost.
The price, however, will be considerable and will be borne not only by the DUP but by the whole of Northern Ireland, where democracy itself has been stuck in aspic for the best part of a year.
The Sunak deal, which keeps NI in the Union but grants it – uniquely – full access to both the UK and EU markets, was a masterstroke of diplomacy, hailed not only in Britain and Europe, but in America. It could even be said that it is the one outcome of Brexit – a process generally regarded as deeply flawed – to have won international acclaim.
It’s not as if the Windsor deal was agreed in spite of the DUP. It was reached because of the DUP. It was their concerns, and only their concerns, that held up the post-Brexit realignment for two long years. Rishi Sunak bent over backwards to address the party’s fears. So did the European Commission. The settlement that emerged did not, it is true, resolve each and every one of the objections raised by Donaldson and his pals. But as we now know, that was always an impossible dream. The only deal that the DUP would have accepted was one that said, “to Hell with Brussels and to Hell with Britain’s trade relations with Europe – let’s rebuild the Border between Ulster and the Republic and line it with Union flags”.
For the DUP to cast themselves as the spanner in the Windsor works is deeply shameful and, worse than that, short-sighted in the extreme. Sunak has said more than once that he will press ahead with the deal regardless of the DUP. And so he should. Brussels will expect no less, and nor will Joe Biden, who spent much of Saint Patrick’s Day last week assuring political leader from Ireland, north and south, that only good could flow from what had been agreed.
It is – just – possible that Donaldson & Co (the “Co” being Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley JR, plus Jim Allister of the Traditional Ulster Voice) are attempting to play a smart hand. It may be that if Sunak can redefine the so-called Stormont Brake – the device that allows any group of 30 or more members of the NI Assembly to object to changes in EU law – so that it more closely resembles a veto, that the DUP can finally be persuaded to sign on the dotted line. But if this is indeed their strategy, then they must know that though the wording might be rejigged, as if by a sub-editor on the Daily Mail, the substance will remain unaltered.
The Windsor Framework is a legally-binding document. Not only that, it is the key that unlocks Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The prime minister will not give it up. Even if the European Research Group – which increasingly resembles a hernia within the body politic of the Tory Party – decides to support the DUP, the deal will go ahead exactly as set out last month between Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission president.
For Northern Ireland, of course, the consequences of a No vote by the DUP could be both serious and long-lasting. The Stormont Assembly hasn’t met in plenary session since it was elected last May and cannot form an Executive without DUP participation. Donaldson & Co say that they want devolution to work. In fact, they only want it if their Britishness has been copper-bottomed and then set in stone, which is not going to happen
The Gordian knot here would, in theory, be new elections, resulting in an Assembly in which the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party gained seats and endorsed the Windsor protocol. But that would be a long shot. Much more likely would be an Assembly that is even more divided than the one we have now, allowing Donaldson to claim that the unionist people of the province regard his intransigence, against all logic, to be the only reasonable way to go.
At that point, anything could happen, and it probably will. Sinn Fein, for one, will be praying beneath its breath for continuing chaos, creating the opportunity for London and Dublin to put Stormont out of its misery. But failing such an intervention, it will be up to Sunak, supported by Keir Starmer, in alliance with with Von der Leyen, Biden and the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, relentlessly to turn the screw. Only when Donaldson, Wilson and Paisley feel the garrotte tightening against their necks is there any chance that they will see sense and, as unionists, vote for their own long-term survival.
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