February 28, 2023 - 9:30am

Rishi Sunak used a curious phrase towards the end of his remarks at yesterday’s joint press conference with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. This was: “parties will want to consider the agreement in detail, a process that will need time and care.” 

That means that, despite some febrile rumours doing the rounds on social media, both the UK and EU don’t expect Northern Ireland’s largest Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to make a public decision on the Windsor Framework before Northern Ireland’s local council elections on 18 May. I am confident that a drawn-out process for the DUP accepting a remarkably generous deal from their point of view was squared with London and Brussels beforehand. A drawn-out DUP consultation process, perhaps involving external stakeholders, will allow them to kick the big decision forward for a crucial few months until polling day has passed.  

The reason for that is that a cardinal point of DUP political strategy is never to allow themselves to be outflanked on the Right, in the way that they themselves once outflanked the long-dominant Ulster Unionist Party in the early years of this century. To their Right lies the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), formed and led, ironically, by a former DUP Member of the European Parliament, Jim Allister. It has threatened a breakthrough several times, without ever quite managing it, since being established in 2007 to protest the party going into government with Sinn Féin. 

In last year’s Assembly election, the party surged to 7% of the vote, by far its best ever result outside Euro elections. Yet it was so far to the Right — for example, it is coy about whether it would like to recriminalise homosexuality — that it fared poorly in the transferred votes that are crucial in Northern Ireland’s electoral system. In fact, it failed to make a single gain, returning Allister to Stormont on his own for the sixth election in a row. However, even a slight further uptick in their fortunes would see them crossing thresholds in shares of the vote where they need transfers from other parties, which are in any case often lower in council elections to begin with, and potentially taking a decent haul of seats from the DUP.  

It may seem extraordinary that Sunak and von der Leyen are spending time worrying about local council seats in Tyrone rather than rockets in Donetsk, but Northern Irish politics is a game of inches. It is often forgotten that the putsch of Ian Paisley as leader of the party he founded began after the DUP lost a substantial number of votes to the TUV in a single council by-election in County Down in 2008. 

What even the most politically short-sighted can, however, see is that the DUP now has a huge interest in getting both this deal and Stormont’s institutions of governance to work. A surge in turnout among liberal voters with moderate views on Northern Ireland sovereignty and identity issues since the Brexit referendum has seen Unionist parties’ combined percentage share of the vote fall to the low forties. The Union now, and for the foreseeable future, depends on the votes of centrists who were mostly staunchly opposed to Brexit. London and Brussels hope this deal may allow Northern Ireland’s metropolitan liberals to sleep more easily while assuaging the concerns of the Unionist Right.

Gerry Lynch was Executive Director of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland from 2007-10 and is now a country parson in Wiltshire.