March 20, 2023 - 6:31pm

So, the DUP says no — again. Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader, confirmed today that he and his seven colleagues in Parliament will unanimously vote against Rishi Sunak’s “Windsor Framework” when it is presented to the House of Commons later this week. In doing so, the Northern Irish crisis slips quietly into a new phase from which it will be even harder to escape.

In one sense, the DUP’s announcement matters little. The party has a total of eight MPs. With Labour already committed to supporting the new arrangement, Sunak’s grand bargain is now the settled will of Parliament. For this reason alone, the deal marks an important moment in recent British history. Whether the DUP supports the deal or not, we are not heading back to 2019 with its endless “meaningful votes” and the rest. The die is cast. The sea border has been drawn. Britain has moved on.

This is the reality the DUP now has to deal with. Things can change, of course, and a rump of Tory MPs (who backed Boris Johnson’s original sea border) will likely oppose the deal — as might Johnson himself. And who knows what will happen after the next general election? But for now, DUP oppositionalism appears to have run its course. 

As ever, though, the situation in Northern Ireland is more complicated, because majorities count for less in Ulster. Even if every other MP backs the deal, the DUP cannot be forced to go back into government with Sinn Fein. For as long as it is the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, its consent is required for power sharing to function. This is the reality of the Good Friday Agreement. And so it does matter that the DUP continues to reject the deal.

Ironically, those who try to ignore this political reality are trying to have their cake and to eat it too. Things work differently in Northern Ireland — that is the whole point. If Northern Ireland were just a normal part of the UK, then the customs posts could have been placed on the sovereign border between the UK and Ireland. But it is not and so they have been placed — rightly or wrongly — within the UK. As a result, we must deal with its different political reality too.

The problem is that it is hard to see how the DUP’s demands can be met. Its position today is that Sunak’s renegotiation has not gone far enough because it still leaves Northern Ireland bound by EU laws over which it has not given its consent. Sunak’s deal gives the DUP some power to block new EU laws which will apply in Northern Ireland, but not the ones that are already in place. Donaldson, in other words, is asking for the entire basis of the sea border to be subject to unionist consent. The problem is that this is just not going to happen — Britain has now decided as much.

And so we’re stuck. The sea border is being built and implemented, but unless the DUP softens its position the cost may well be power sharing. The danger today, then, is that far from edging towards some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, we might be moving in the opposite direction, further into the dark.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.