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The DUP deserves a break over its Northern Ireland protocol stance – The Irish Times


Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the British government have been united in their opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol. However, it would be wrong simply to lump unionist critics of the protocol together with those of Boris Johnson’s government.

My understanding of the purpose, nature and effect of the protocol differs from that of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The institutions of the Belfast Agreement are being held hostage in order to vindicate the DUP’s view of the protocol. However, I understand and respect where Donaldson is coming from.

For six reasons, it is not possible to have similar respect for the Johnson government.

First, it is the legitimate role of every political party in Northern Ireland to reflect the views and aspirations of its supporters. That positioning should, of course, be nuanced by an appreciation of the views of others which, in the case of the protocol, means the majority in Northern Ireland. However, it is not difficult to understand why the DUP, and many other unionists, do not like the protocol.

I am firmly convinced that London has constrained the DUP to take the hardest possible line on the Protocol rather than the other way around

In sharp contrast, it is precisely not the role of the London government to advance the point of view of only one party or community in Northern Ireland.

Second, the protocol was negotiated by Johnson, not by the DUP. The British government, whether led by Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, will continue to have a moral, legal and political responsibility to respect a treaty that it shaped, agreed and ratified. The DUP is not similarly bound by that responsibility, although the hope is that it might understand the difficult and complex negotiations in which agreement was reached that the protocol, however imperfect, was the only realistic solution. Hopefully the DUP would also see some value in its national government respecting legally binding commitments.

Third, the DUP is not a co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement. It is, of course, a very important actor in the implementation of the agreement and has every right to assert its point of view on whatever issues arise. The British government, on the other hand, has a sacred political responsibility to act as co-guarantor of the peace process with the Irish Government. Sadly, it is a responsibility that, under Johnson, it has neither understood nor valued.

Fourth, the DUP’s criticisms have essentially, and wisely, been focused on the practical implementation of the protocol, in relation to which it has made some reasonable points. Such practical problems can, indeed must, be solved through the mechanisms of the protocol itself. This will in turn require maximum flexibility from the European Union. However, the Johnson government, unlike the DUP, last year introduced several gratuitous issues, such as the role of the European Court of Justice, that have nothing to do with concerns raised by business interests in Northern Ireland. They reflect rather a maximalist view of British sovereignty that would render impossible any progress towards agreement on the protocol. The DUP cannot distance itself politically from such nonsense but cannot be blamed for it either.

Fifth, the DUP cares deeply about what happens in Northern Ireland, as do the other political parties there. In contrast, for Boris Johnson Northern Ireland has been an occasional chess piece in his great and only game of personal advancement. Everyone, including the DUP, knows that.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that the DUP has been insisting on seeing concrete progress on London’s Bill purporting to override the protocol before agreeing to the establishment of a new Northern Ireland Executive. Verbal assurances from Johnson, even the binding treaties he has signed, count little for him.

Finally, however far off agreement on the protocol may be, that it would be easier to reach eventual agreement if Jeffrey Donaldson rather than Boris Johnson were in the driving seat of calls for its reform. I am firmly convinced that London has constrained the DUP to take the hardest possible line on the protocol rather than the other way around. Of course, I have no proof of that. Nor, if it is true, would the DUP be able to acknowledge it.

Johnson’s chess-playing has brought things, appropriately enough for chess, to the present stalemate. His successor will have an opportunity for a fresh start although few people will be holding their breath.

If progress in negotiations remains stymied, we should at least try to understand one another better. Hopefully, for their part, the DUP will try to understand, even if they disagree strongly with the Irish Government’s approach to the protocol, that there has at no point been the remotest intention in Dublin to upset the balances of the Belfast Agreement, to undermine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland or to make life difficult for unionists.

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