The prime minister insists Britain has “taken back control” and Brussels chief Ursula von der Leyen has pointed to a “new chapter” with a “stronger EU-UK relationship,” but warning signs suggest that excitement around the new Northern Ireland Protocol deal will not last long. Questions remain on a number of key points regarding the agreement; will the UK parliament approve the plans? What about the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)? Will power-sharing (described as a true test of the deal) return in Northern Ireland? And what about the future of the Conservative Party, which can now claim to have got Brexit “done?”
The first point—on parliament approving the plans—is likely to be straightforward. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was quick to give his party’s backing to the deal. Tory MPs appear as though they will also be easier to win over than previous reports suggested. On the night the deal, which is detailed here, was unveiled, not even one Conservative MP openly came out against it, and Eurosceptic MPs asked only “gently sceptical questions.” Northern Ireland Secretary Steve Baker was apparently poised to resign if the prime minister presented a bad deal, but he too has come out in favour, celebrating that “he’s done it.” Mr. Sunak himself said that parliament’s vote will be “respected,” perhaps agreeing with the assessment of The Times that “approval is virtually assured.”
It is far less obvious what stance the DUP will take. In another article on the subject, The Times describes the prime minister’s task since he entered office as creating a deal “that meets the Democratic Unionist Party’s seven tests for re-entering power-sharing” (more on this shortly). But concerns remain in five—possibly six—of these areas; particularly over the continued role of dispute arbitrator for the European Court of Justice and the hollowness of the so-called “Stormont Break.” Officially, the DUP has committed itself to “study the detail” before reaching any conclusion. Unofficially, one party grandee, Ian Paisley Jr., has already complained that the framework “does not cut the mustard.”
Former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, who has long supported the position of the DUP, also told The European Conservative that the deal represents “yet another fudge and sellout.” He described the Conservative government as “hopeless.” If pro-UK unionists in Northern Ireland agree, Mr. Sunak could be in trouble.
So too could be the prospect of a return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Under the deal, Northern Ireland still has a different relationship with the EU than that between London and Brussels, despite being in the same United Kingdom. As such, BBC Political Editor Chris Mason highlights that “the path to delivering the ultimate prize of these negotiations, restored devolved government, is … so difficult.” The system was introduced as part of the Good Friday Agreement and most recently collapsed last year when the DUP pulled its first minister out of Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliament, in protest against the Protocol.
Mr. Sunak described the return of power-sharing as a true test of the new deal, suggesting he is confident this will take place. But the government has also signalled that, even if the DUP raises serious concerns about the agreement, there is no room to make changes. (A Whitehall source also told The Times for its February 28th print edition that the deal has not been altered in recent weeks despite concerns being raised over initial reports, and that during this time, the UK “didn’t even have anyone apart from a couple of lawyers left in Brussels.”) Reports also suggest that Number 10 will defy the DUP if it comes out against the deal, which could do great damage to the prospect of power-sharing coming back.
The striking of a deal has given the Conservative Party some much-needed good press, with the papers hailing a “breakthrough” after Mr. Sunak did “the impossible” and “got Brexit done.” But former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has described this “unified joy” as “brief,” arguing that “I promise you, it will not last long.”
The main problem, he said, is that “few voters know or care anything about the intricacies of the Northern Irish Protocol.” Immigration, crime, the cost of living—these, Mr. Farage adds, are the issues that really get voters going. And on all of them, the Tories are doing badly—and, indeed, have been for over a decade. “Electoral wipeout,” then, could still be on the cards. Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Bow Group, Britain’s oldest conservative think tank, has also stressed that the Tories shouldn’t mistake the Protocol deal honeymoon period as a sign of good things to come. He told The European Conservative:
The Bow Group said from the outset that bespoke rules needed to be set for the island of Ireland by both the EU and UK. The EU initially insisted that EU rules were immutable and no such concessions could be made, but they have now conceded to a bespoke system. This proposed deal however allows the EU to continue to retain sovereignty over Northern Ireland and act as the final arbiter in trade disputes.
The deal is likely to pass through Parliament with cross-party support, but fail to satisfy unionists at Stormont. The issue is therefore likely to remain a point of contention and is unlikely to be a significant positive for the Conservatives in the polls.
Much is yet to be seen, but despite all the excitement, the deal struck between the EU and the UK over the Protocol could still see Northern Ireland operating on separate (worse) terms with Brussels than the rest of the UK, power-sharing in Stormont unrestored, and a bunch of Tory MPs left without a job following the next general election. Only time, now, will tell.