With Stormont back, has the Union been ‘secured’ for good?

Peter Cardwell, Senior Counsel

Rishi Sunak’s lap of honour at Stormont today is well-earned, but it’s one of very few he has enjoyed as Prime Minister. He met the new First Minister, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, and the ministers from a variety of parties in the mandatory coalition who will now attempt to extract Northern Ireland from its public service crisis.  A £3.3bn bung from the British taxpayer to a part of the UK where funding per capita is already 15% above the level of that spent on English taxpayers has barely elicited a murmur in Westminster, with many in Northern Ireland arguing its necessary after decades of underinvestment.  But the fact is, Northern Ireland has rarely been able to live within its means.

The process to get to this point has been painstaking, with figures in Number 10 I’ve been speaking to emphasising how the DUP were kept on board at every stage of the process, alongside other interested parties such as the EU and Irish government.  Nevertheless, to have a document entitled ‘Securing The Union’ published by the UK government in relation to Northern Ireland is symbolically important, indeed perhaps as important as some of the substantive policies overleaf.  In 1998 when the Belfast Agreement was signed, the phrase ‘creative ambiguity’ loomed large.  That will be essential if the deal is to work, especially from the EU side.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s insistence there will be ‘zero’ checks at the border aren’t quite true, but this is as good a deal as unionism was likely to get.  You cannot negotiate a compromise with reality.  The DUP, however, is clearly not united, with the percentage of those who voted for this deal not made public by a DUP wary of historical comparisons with David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists.  Trimble survived a number of extremely close votes during his leadership and the DUP eventually became the largest unionist party in the early 2000s.

The DUP still has its own critics over this deal, both internally in figures such as Sammy Wilson, who I interviewed before Thursday’s deal for the Atticus podcast Perspectives on the Protocol.  Also influential is the DUP’s chief critic – and former member – Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice, who is both an assembly member and the most effective opposition politician in Northern Ireland.  The risk of terrorism from loyalist paramilitaries is low, but MI5 will be keeping a close eye on what is happening within those communities through its network of informers.

Since the Belfast Agreement in 1998 Northern Ireland’s devolved government has been ‘off’ more than it has been ‘on’.  Michelle O’Neill said, to me, contradictory things in her interview with doyen of Northern Ireland journalism David Blevins of Sky News.  She insisted she wanted to make Northern Ireland work as a country – even uttering the words ‘Northern Ireland’ in public for the first time (having previously called it ‘the north of Ireland’), but also that she wanted a referendum on Irish unity. 

After a golden period of British-Irish relations reached its zenith when Elizabeth II paid a State Visit to Ireland in 2011, Brexit soured relations and people – especially in Northern Ireland – started thinking much more about borders.  If Northern Ireland’s newly-reconstituted government does work, the union can become more secure and the threat of a united Ireland may subside.  But it’s not just about external factors: with the sea border now softer, perhaps a clearer view of the greatest threat to the union – Scottish independence – will emerge.

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