Sam McBride: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson may want compromise on the Irish Sea border, but the DUP might not

As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was being ratified as DUP leader on Wednesday night, there was symbolic weakening of the unionism he now leads.

Saturday, 3rd July 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 6:14 pm
Cartoon by Brian John Spencer. To purchase the original, email UlsterPainter [at] gmail.com

One of his MLAs, Alex Easton, resigned with a blistering statement which said that within the DUP “there is no respect, discipline or decency; I have just had enough”.

There was pathos and disillusionment as the North Down MLA said: “I have given 21 years of my life to the DUP, sometimes to the detriment of my health and wellbeing. It has been extremely lonely at times for me, and few have cared how I have felt.”

That cut through the spin of the party which claims to be a family, rather than simply an political organisation.

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But it had symbolic historical significance. The resignation meant that for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland Sinn Féin is the biggest party in Stormont.

That would have been unthinkable not just in 1921, but as recently as 2016 when the DUP roared back to Stormont ten seats ahead of a Sinn Féin which was going into reverse and lost an MLA in that election.

Six weeks later, the Brexit vote transformed what had been relative tranquillity and arguably the zenith of unionist constitutional security.

But while that was an unwelcome present for Sir Jeffrey on his first day, a far greater dilemma lies before him – and it is pressing.

The Irish Sea border created by the Northern Ireland Protocol is almost certain to define Sir Jeffrey’s tenure as DUP leader.

It will dominate next May’s Assembly election when unionists will seek a mandate to vote down the core trade provisions in the protocol when they get a say in 2024, and that message is probably the DUP’s greatest hope of staving off electoral implosion.

It is also something which with each passing month becomes more complex and more far-reaching. That will continue for months as ‘grace periods’ delaying parts of the new border expire.

In fact, the growing complexity and controversy will continue indefinitely because every time EU law which the protocol enforces in Northern Ireland is changed there will be fresh friction with Great Britain and a reminder that swathes of Northern Ireland’s statute book are now set by people who are not elected here.

Sir Jeffrey’s first speech on Thursday made clear that he sees the protocol as “not just a threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom; it is a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom”.

But, having identified what he sees as the central problem, what will he do about it? The bland speech suggested little fresh thinking from the time of Arlene Foster and the most telling part came in response to a reporter’s question afterwards.

Just last week, Sir Jeffrey’s camp had briefed Stephen Nolan that “he will demand no barriers to trade and demand there is full respect for the Act of Union or he will pull the DUP out of the Assembly”.

The “no barriers to trade” threshold would only be passed if the protocol was effectively scrapped; even an SPS deal leaves customs red tape.

However, on Thursday Sir Jeffrey was asked by UTV political editor Tracey Magee: “Are you prepared to pull down Stormont if the NI Protocol is not removed?”

Quickly abandoning the chest-beating of last week, Sir Jeffrey said: “I would not use those words.”

What lies behind that contradiction may be no more complex than a DUP moderate feeling a need to talk tough in order to ensure that he would get the leadership.

But there may be more calculation behind it. The EU has privately communicated to the DUP that it should be realistic in its demands rather than asking for too much. Brussels has essentially said ‘ask for how we can make the protocol can be made less obtrusive but don’t ask for it to be ditched because that won’t happen’.

On Wednesday, the EU announced a series of limited relaxations of the Irish Sea border, one of which involved Brussels U-turning to alter its own legislation – something it previously ruled out – to get around provisions in the protocol which otherwise would have disrupted the flow of medicines.

Sir Jeffrey has given no hint that he sees this as adequate, and said in his speech that his goal is still to see the entire border removed.

But he now faces a dilemma. With limited leverage, is he prepared to take radical measures – the ultimate of which would be to collapse Stormont – to secure his goal? Alternatively, if he calculates that the protocol can only be mitigated rather than removed, does he want his leadership to be defined by defeat in pressing for the unachievable, or does he seek to quietly push this out of sight and focus on other issues?

Unionist history suggests he will either go in a hardline direction or lose his party. With two councillors and one MLA having quit since Edwin Poots’s resignation as leader, Sir Jeffrey is not yet firmly in control.

The scale of the Irish Sea border also makes it difficult for him to spin minor changes as anything close to the “no barriers to trade” which he has demanded.

The government has created a growing apparatus of organisations and funds to mitigate the new trade frontier. Just one of those bodies, the Trader Support Service (costing £240m over two years) now employs 900 staff who have received 50,000 calls from businesses since January and have made a further 100,000 calls to firms struggling to cope with the new customs red tape.

But what are Sir Jeffrey’s personal instincts on the protocol? There is little reason to believe that he likes it in any way. However, he has shown significant glimpses of being open to compromise.

Last March, Sir Jeffrey told BBC Spotlight that customs checks could be an opportunity for businesses in Northern Ireland and dismissed the idea that a customs border has implications for sovereignty.

Five months earlier, the DUP at Westminster – where as chief whip Sir Jeffrey was the key conduit to the government – conceded that it would accept a deal which would see Northern Ireland left largely inside the EU single market, creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

In return, the party secured a role for Stormont in voting on the issue. Within days that had morphed into what is now in place and the DUP has disowned it.

But even going back seven months before that, to Theresa May’s initial backstop plan, the DUP’s opposition to that is now said to have been far less rigid in private than in public. Julian Smith, then the Tories’ chief whip, said in an interview with the UK In a Changing Europe’s Brexit Witness Archive that “we were very close to getting them [the DUP]...I think we had them lined up” to vote for a slightly amended backstop.

Gavan Barwell, Mrs May’s chief of staff, said of that moment: “We were just about to get the DUP onside. We had a document that we were about to publish that was a deal with them...I can’t tell you that they signed on the dotted line, but we had got to the level of trying to agree a date and a time for when a statement would be made. We were close. It was the closest we ever got with the DUP.”

All of that points towards Sir Jeffrey as a leader whose instincts are to negotiate a deal; to compromise in this area. He will know that not doing so will incur the wrath of a White House which has made clear that it is taking sides on the protocol, and that it is not on unionism’s side in this dispute.

And yet his party – and most of unionism – has been arguing in court that the protocol is such a constitutional abomination that it is illegal because it contravenes the Act of Union. Compromise on what the DUP has made clear is the constitutional fabric of the UK is perilous territory for any unionist leader.

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