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Sunak must learn to play hardball over Northern Ireland


NORTHERN Ireland is often the graveyard of political careers, although it’s usually some hapless Secretary of State. Rishi Sunak is flirting with disaster – he’s been told that he hasn’t a hope of getting his new Brexit deal through without the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with ministers now prepared to resign amid a mounting backlash from his MPs.

The DUP have read the proposal and rejected it as it does not meet their requirements, the seven tests. These were set out in July 2021, and are clear and straightforward. They were ignored in the development of the fudge (aka the Northern Ireland Protocol) to deliver Boris Johnson’s half-baked Brexit by placing a trade barrier in the Irish Sea. This put Brussels in ultimate control of trade in Northern Ireland, to the understandable fury of the Ulster Unionists and the DUP. Their desire to be ruled by the Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is often administratively inconvenient, but that does not make it any less sincere or valid. Entirely predictably, the DUP have left the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont which in turn may place the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy.

That’s a problem for the Prime Minister, as President Biden won’t play selfies unless it’s fixed and the DUP return to Stormont. Sunak is increasingly in a bind of Johnson’s making, although he hasn’t helped himself by (apparently) considering delaying the passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would affirm the UK’s right to make unilateral adjustments to the Protocol itself. With a blithe disregard for the origins of the problem and characteristic chutzpah, Johnson fired off a salvo too. 

As has long been clear, the EU have no interest whatsoever in making Brexit easy. This is especially the case regarding anything to do with Ireland. The UK is the Republic of Ireland’s second-largest trade partner (after the US) and provides Irish-domiciled companies with easy access to three of the world’s top ten universities (Trinity College Dublin is rated 99). The UK also de facto defends Irish air and sea space. (Ireland has no combat aircraft. Its five patrol vessels have limited combat capability. Courtesy of the British Armed Forces and taxpayers, Ireland does neutrality on the cheap). Ireland is the only non-contiguous part of the EU, and of course it’s English-speaking. Worse, its population had the temerity to vote against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 (although they then approved a mildly modified version in 2009). Were Brexit to become a success the argument for Irexit would be more easily made.

The current Northern Irish Protocol is a temporary measure. Given that its terms have stopped the government of Stormont, it demonstrably needs substantial amendment to achieve something that the Unionists find acceptable. The proposed deal doesn’t achieve this, which is why the government is pushing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through Parliament. The bill will give them the right unilaterally to vary the terms. It’s a big hammer, and the EU don’t like it – which to anyone other than a fool means that it has great value to the UK.

Theresa May’s government was dependent upon the support of the Ulster Unionists. Boris Johnson’s wasn’t and thus he was able to ignore their concerns and ram his half-baked Brexit deal through. Rishi Sunak has inherited the majority but is now confronted by the reality that Leo Varadkar, then as now Taoiseach, somehow played the Good Friday Agreement card, ludicrously claiming that if Northern Ireland were out of EU jurisdiction a hard border would be necessary to maintain the integrity of standards of goods sold in EU and that would be an end to the peace.

Inevitably British negotiators folded, rather than pointing out that technical provenance-tracing solutions are possible. They could have gone further and said they saw no need to build a wall (the British Army tried that in the Troubles, but it was never impenetrable) but of course if the Irish Republic wanted to build such a thing it had the right.

The Prime Minister is in a game of hardball, which might be something he’s not used to from his days in academe and banking. It’s time to learn. His predecessors have dealt him a weak hand. The primary architects of Brexit are not in Parliament, although many who oppose it are. It’s time for the Prime Minister to channel Mrs Thatcher: ‘No! To EU jurisdiction over the trade of any square foot of the UK, let alone six counties. No! To an electronic border in the Irish Sea. And No! To a hard border!’

As the DUP would say: ‘No Surrender!’

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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