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Leader comment: New deal for Stormont

02 February 2024

IN THE coverage of the new trade deal with Northern Ireland, designed to restore direct government from Stormont, one expression stood out. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, was described as “an experienced negotiator” who knew that he could not get everything that he wanted. At the time of writing, there are still hurdles to get over, not least from hard-line members of his own party; but the nature of the Brexit deal negotiated by Boris Johnson after the 2016 referendum meant that it was impossible for anyone to get what they wanted. “Frictionless” trade could not exist both between Northern Ireland and the mainland, and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It seems extraordinary that devolved government should be suspended for two years over such items as chilled sausages. But in a country only 25 years on from the “No surrender!” politics of Protestant and Catholic divisions, it was perhaps unsurprising that various imports would become symbolic of the damaged relationships with Westminster.

The slackening of restrictions which this week’s deal implies may be seen as a victory for democracy. Not only will devolved government be restored — and with it, the first ever Sinn Féin First Minister, Michelle O’Neill — but cross-border relations will be eased, as the majority of Northern Irish citizens want. In the Brexit referendum, 56 per cent voted to remain in the EU, 44 per cent to leave. The Scots (62 to 38 per cent) have protested more loudly, perhaps, but such a discrepancy between Northern Ireland and the mainland has rankled, and contributed to electoral gains by Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party in the 2022 elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are not sure that the DUP leadership would be as confident as the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Doug Beattie, who said during the 2022 elections that a united Ireland would not happen in his or his children’s lifetime — thus “we can set it aside in order to concentrate on the issues affecting the daily lives of our people who live here.” But the deal, in essence at least, has the potential to satisfy all but the most uncompromising Nationalists and Unionists.

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 has been held up globally as an example of the way in which seemingly intractable differences could be overcome by patient and painstaking negotiation. The prolonged stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol took the shine off the Agreement. It is to be hoped that the deal thrashed out over five hours on Monday night will end the impasse, and allow Northern Irish politicians to start to tackle the long list of social problems that have built up during their absence from Stormont.

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