The people of Northern Ireland want their assembly back. The DUP must not be allowed to block that

<span>Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP</span>
Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

Nothing in Boris Johnson’s post-Downing Street antics has been more cynical than his dodging from the privileges committee hearing on Wednesday to vote against Rishi Sunak’s Windsor framework. That reform was a hard-won attempt to rescue and reorder Johnson’s own hard-Brexit shambles. The least he could do was say thank you and shut up.

Fleeing to Northern Ireland’s extremist wilderness has long appealed to Britain’s political rejects. It offered a bunker to FE Smith and Enoch Powell. If Uxbridge now drops Johnson as its MP, Antrim will doubtless make him an offer, from whose cliffs he can rant and conspire against colleagues to his heart’s content. But the damage done by Brexit to the vexed politics of Northern Ireland does not end there. As its trade protocol sinks below the horizon, Churchill’s “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” are emerging once more in its place.

The Windsor framework is the nearest circles have come to being squared. As Sunak remarked with some irony, Northern Ireland now has a “unique position” under Brexit. It will enjoy free commerce both with Britain and with the EU single market through Ireland. But such trade would obviously be subject to two disciplines. One is to be controlled so as to prevent Belfast becoming an illicit backdoor round the EU’s border controls; the other is that exports from Northern Ireland must conform to EU as well as British standards. There could be no smuggling or undercutting. All trade requires some sacrifice of sovereignty because all trade is by its nature an economic intrusion.

As it is, Sunak has negotiated a “Stormont brake”, the right for Belfast to take disputed standards to arbitration. This is rich in itself. Scottish fishers or Kent winemakers enjoy no such “democratic” right. But the DUP leadership under Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wants more: not just arbitration but a Stormont standards veto. He does not inhabit the real world.

Rishi Sunak with local business leaders at Coca-Cola HBC, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, 28 February 2023.
‘A recent survey showed that even 56% of unionists support Sunak’s deal.’ Rishi Sunak with local business leaders at Coca-Cola HBC, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, 28 February 2023. Photograph: Liam Mcburney/AFP/Getty Images

A recent Liverpool University survey showed that even 56% of unionists support Sunak’s deal. Just 17% oppose it. Most people in Northern Ireland are clearly fed up with the political morass in which they have become trapped. Yet Johnson and 21 other Tory backbenchers find themselves agreeing with Donaldson. These Tories would vote for the Earth being flat if it might undermine their party leader.

The DUP is able to use veto rights over the province’s executive decisions under the Good Friday agreement’s power-sharing constitution. It can also vote Stormont and its government into recess, as it has done for the past year following Sinn Féin’s 2022 election success. Then, the DUP’s one-third of votes at the 2019 general election shrank to 21%, while Sinn Féin rose to 29%. This reflects the fact that declared Protestants are now in a minority in Northern Ireland, coupled with the expectation, notably of younger voters, that Irish reunion is now only a matter of time.

In 1921, Belfast was awarded “home rule” to allow it freedom from Catholic domination by a new government in Dublin. Northern Protestants demanded and got exemption from social and cultural reforms governing the rest of the UK. It was allowed religious discrimination in housing and schooling. It duly went to sleep. Belfast, once Ireland’s industrial heartland, declined into a shadow of booming Dublin to the south. Resting on a bed of British subsidy, Northern Ireland stagnated into a Disney theme park of Europe’s ancient religious divide. Tourists now gaze at graffiti on Belfast’s garish “peace walls”, unbelieving that they are still in place.

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In other words, the veto power conferred by Good Friday on unionist extremism merely entrenched its negativity and awarded it disproportionate power. For what is a minority of a minority to demand a veto over London’s treaty dealings with the EU is monstrous. That is now overridden. But for a party founded by a religious fanatic, Ian Paisley, and now backed by only one voter in five to be able to hamstring democratic government is wrong. Northern Ireland is desperate. Civil servants cannot increase budgets to fund cost of living reliefs or aid a health service in crisis.

Polls show the people of Northern Ireland now overwhelmingly want their assembly back and their executive to return. In the short term, this must require the restoration of direct rule from Whitehall. That should presage the return of proper democracy, under the aegis of a refashioned federal constitution.

If the parties to a ruling coalition choose to boycott it, government should be able to continue. Ireland’s economic union needs to be protected. The rest of Britain may utter a wail of dismay, but the Northern Ireland question must be reopened. The legacy of England’s ancient “empire of the isles” remains unfinished business.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist