Rishi Sunak can still bring the DUP round to his Protocol plans

·3 min read
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a joint news conference with European Commission President on a post-Brexit deal in Windsor, Britain
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a joint news conference with European Commission President on a post-Brexit deal in Windsor, Britain

Much of the analysis around the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) views on the Windsor Framework is misleading at best. While the party did not vote for Rishi Sunak’s motion on Wednesday, it is simply not true that it opposed his plans outright. The debate was after all on one element of the Framework: the Stormont brake.

In truth, the DUP has been open to Mr Sunak’s proposals. As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson indicated when the deal was first announced, significant progress has been made in certain areas. It was therefore worthwhile for Mr Sunak to seek to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol and alleviate some of the serious challenges faced under its implementation.

The DUP’s outstanding complaints need not torpedo the Framework. They are about the need for clarification in some important fields. If these clarifications are made, either in UK law or through some other domestic mechanism, then there is still a pathway for restoring Stormont.

One example of the need for clarification is how the Framework relates to the Act of Union. The first of seven DUP tests for Mr Sunak’s deal is that it should fulfil Article 6 of the Act, which states that all parts of the United Kingdom shall have the same allowances, encouragements and draw-backs, and be under the same prohibitions, restrictions and regulations of trade, and liable to the same customs, duties, imports and exports.

It is not yet clear to me that No 10 is guaranteeing these obligations. The Framework’s legal position claims to “respect” the Act of Union by protecting the economic rights of people in Northern Ireland. Mr Sunak’s view seems to be that, by dealing with practical issues, he is working towards a de facto harmonisation of trade between GB and NI, and therefore fulfilling Article 6 in a roundabout way. If this is indeed his intention, it might help if he sets it out clearly and outlines safeguards in law.

Mr Sunak would also have to find a way to diminish the practical issues caused by the bearing of EU regulations on Northern Ireland’s manufacturers. While it is good progress that people in Northern Ireland will, under the Framework, be unimpeded in buying sausages from other parts of the UK, it remains the case that sausages made in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, have to be made to EU standards because EU law applies to all of our manufactured goods. This applies even if our sausages are sold into the UK market, as most of our products are.

Then there are the concerns over the Stormont brake. Analysis published this week by the European Research Group showed just how convoluted the process is, and how difficult it will be to use in practice. Since the EU has already conceded that the brake must be built on the principle of consent, this is an issue that London can address directly.

As a member of the DUP’s panel of eight consulting on the Windsor Framework, I do not doubt that important practical steps have been taken, and that trade will be easier with the Framework than before. But now, to restore devolution in Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister should know that it is eminently possible to meet the DUP’s remaining concerns. This is not a zero-sum game – we all care about the Union.

Arlene Foster is a former first minister of Northern Ireland and a non-affiliated peer