The writer was the main British negotiator in Northern Ireland between 1997 and 2007.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, now faces a hateful choice over the so-called “Windsor framework”, the deal to restore post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Are you going to channel the Ian Paisley who, as DUP leader, bellowed “Ulster says no” to Margaret Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish Settlement in 1985? Or the Ian Paisley who said yes to the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 and established a shared executive power with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness that brought prosperity and stability to Northern Ireland for over a decade?
I spent a good part of my adult life negotiating with the DUP on Northern Ireland matters, and the problem they always face at this stage is knowing when to back off and when to wait.
Based on experience, I wouldn’t bet they’d always make the right choice, especially when they’re under pressure from DUP maverick Jim Allister to their right, crying treason. This time, however, the answer should be clear.
There is no doubt that Prime Minister Boris Johnson betrayed the unionists in 2019. He struck a deal with the EU that sacrificed its interests so that he could reach a quick deal for his English Brexiteers and win an election. Some of us pointed out at the time that this agreement would cause serious problems for trade unionists by undermining their identity.
Brexit was always going to affect the identity of one or another of the Northern Ireland communities. If the UK was to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, there had to be a border somewhere, regardless of the magical thinking of Brexiters who claimed that it could provide itself with non-existent technology.
If the decision had been to put that border on the island of Ireland, between north and south, it would have been a disaster for the Good Friday Agreement, which aimed to remove the poison of competing identities from politics in the province.
But it was, and is, a mistake to pretend that putting the border in the Irish Sea would have no consequences for unionists, who would then be cut off from the rest of the UK.
There is an unappealing tendency at some higher levels of British politics to ignore the views of unionists because their traditions seem strange and old-fashioned. That’s wrong: they have just as much right to have their views respected as anyone else.
The DUP is right to take its time to study the agreement concluded on Monday. His approach has always been that of an incredulous Thomas, wanting to check and verify the details of any deal to see if he is being duped.
However, they should not get lost in the undergrowth. When you look at this arrangement you will see that it solves the practical problems of applying Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol. It meets the “Sainsbury’s test” they originally set out, which requires people in Northern Ireland to be able to buy the same products at a supermarket in Lisburn as they are in Lowestoft.
The Windsor framework also meets the other tests they set out. It establishes a green lane and goods can flow freely in both directions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It protects Northern Ireland’s place in the union, which can only be changed by the majority of the people in the province. And it foresees a greater democratic role of the politicians of the province in the application of the protocol.
What the new framework doesn’t do, and never could do, is remove the border altogether. There has to be a border somewhere, and unionists have no alternative suggestion of where it should be.
It would therefore be prudent to accept this deal, which will provide Northern Ireland with much-needed stability and the opportunity to attract investment and jobs, while making that border invisible for all intents and purposes.
Even if the framework doesn’t offer everything the DUP wants, they shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. It protects the Good Friday Agreement and protects your interests. Demanding that negotiations resume will not work and they will find themselves stuck in a dead end with no assembly in Stormont and permanent political instability in Northern Ireland.
Donaldson walked out of the Good Friday negotiations just as a deal was struck in 1998. This time he has a chance to redeem himself, just as Paisley did by transforming from Dr. No in 1985 to Dr. Yes in 2006.