What does the deal on the Protocol mean?

In most accounts of the negotiations that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, one of the last sticking points is identified as having been the cunning ploy of persuading the Ulster Unionists to agree to the criteria for a devolved executive elected by the Stormont Assembly.

Of course, as Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell pointed out in his book, David Trimble ought to have been delighted as his party and the British had succeeded in persuading Sinn Féin to accept not only that Northern Ireland would continue for the foreseeable future to be part of the United Kingdom, but to participation in the governance of the Six Counties.

Indeed, Adams having managed in October 1996 to persuade the IRA Convention to allow him to sign up to Stormont was the key and proved to be far more important than his apparent defeat on other issues regarding the terms of the ceasefire.

Even after the acceptance of a new Stormont, republicans were told for several years that Stormont and any Sinn Féin participation in the assembly, let alone an Executive, would only be a temporary arrangement that would become irrelevant as national unification inevitably drew closer. Eventually, the need to sustain that fiction faded away along with all the other promises. As Ed Moloney put it, “the unthinkable had become reality”.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and not only is national unification no closer than it was 25 years ago, but Sinn Féin, rather than the main unionist party, are the ones pinning their hopes on the DUP acceptance of the deal negotiated by British Prime Minister Sunak on the Northern Ireland Protocol in place since the UK voted to leave the European Union.

The DUP never signed the Good Friday Agreement although it was they, rather than the UUP, which sealed Sinn Féin’s ultimate acceptance of the partition by later agreeing to form an Executive in which the DUP and Sinn Féin shared the positions of First and Deputy First Prime Minister.

Some observers regarded this as the ultimate exercise in cynicism. Perhaps it was, but both parties are also dependent upon popular support.  It was initially republican grassroots unease at the tame performance of the Sinn Féin ministers which forced the leadership reluctantly to pull the plug on DUP First Minister Arlene Foster in January 2017. The DUP have since had their revenge by refusing to re-enter the Executive since last year’s assembly elections which led to Sinn Féin becoming the largest party, and therefore in a position to assume the office of First Minister.

The DUP boycott has been based on its opposition to the post-Brexit Protocol governing Northern Ireland’s relationship with the European Union, but others claim that while it may genuinely regard this as undermining the relationship of the six counties with the rest of the UK on the basis of the economic arrangements and the ongoing role of the European Court of Justice, it also forms a convenient excuse not to enter government with a Sinn Féin First Minister.

The so-called ‘Windsor Framework’ embodying changes to the Protocol as finalised between Sunak and the EU Commission at the weekend was initially hailed as a breakthrough that would lead to the restoration of the beloved “Institutions”.

Sinn Féin welcomed it, even before it could possibly have had a chance to properly parse the document. But as an astute colleague pointed out, if there was anything calculated to put the DUP off a deal it was the Shinners’ enthusiasm. Perhaps that was the intention.


It appeared at first that the DUP would accept the measure and thus be left with no option but to re-enter the assembly and the Executive with Michelle O’Neill as First Minister. However, yesterday afternoon, the Twitter machine began to hint that this might not be so. Nicholas Watt, the political editor of Newsnight, burst the bubble of optimism after speaking with Ian Paisley junior.


Now, while that might have been speculated as having to do with internal DUP and even Conservative Party matters, and Paisley attempting to jump the gun on party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, it soon became apparent that the DUP were not going to simply accept it, but were going to go away and consider it. Which, no matter what you might think of them, is a reasonable enough attitude to take. They will after all have to take heed of their own membership and supporters.

That is something which appears to have escaped the attention of the vast majority of Sinn Féin supporters who disturbingly appear to accept not only the first impressions of their leaders on anything under the sun, but who similarly evince a touching faith in the negotiating capacities of a Tory Prime Minister, and the good faith of the EU Commission, and the backing of the Irish government. There were a few isolated voices who made the obvious point as a response to O’Neill’s effusive welcome.



However, the views of most Sinn Féin supporters and members are more reflected by those who are living evidence of how much the Overton Window of Irish nationalism has moved to a position more akin to the Redmondite Home Rule Party than anything resembling Irish separatist nationalism.


First of all, no-one who might plausibly describe themselves as an Irish “Republican” in any meaningful sense of what that used to mean could have ambitions to be the First Minister in an attenuated government over part of Ireland that is under British control.

Secondly, even if the deal is accepted then it strengthens rather than weakens British sovereignty over that part of Ireland. Thirdly and most importantly, even if the DUP do reject the ‘Windsor Framework’ then neither a border poll nor a united Ireland are one jot closer. And most of all even if there is a border poll, it will not lead to a united Ireland.

In the meantime. Sunak has come to sell the deal today, but is also stating that even if the DUP do not accept it that it will be implemented anyway. That means that if the DUP do not accept it, presumably their boycott of Stormont will continue and that part of Ireland continues as it has been since 1921 to be governed one way or another, but not as part of a 32 county state.

Which is what will be celebrated in April on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

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