DUP has entangled itself in a legalistic critique of Windsor Framework

Where all the exceptions and flexibilities needed to make plan work will ultimately lead is an open question

The most important improvement in Northern Ireland’s new protocol arrangement is the relationship between London and Brussels. Or as the sarcastic expression puts it, the real Windsor Framework is the friends we made along the way.

Picking over the deal’s shortcomings and contradictions, of which there are many, is a valid technical exercise but it must be followed by asking if the new relationship can fix each problem. Is it possible to imagine a fudge rather than a legalistic confrontation?

For example, Northern Ireland’s manufacturers must still follow EU product standards, even for goods sold solely within the UK. The DUP considers this an affront to sovereignty but business groups say they are happy with it – they want to follow EU standards to preserve single market access, while Britain will shadow EU standards.

Issues this complex are hard to predict, however. Westminster is currently passing a ban on the importation of hunting trophies, which it has realised it cannot extend to Northern Ireland. Until last week, nobody foresaw a west-to-east sea border of any description, let alone for moose heads.


Suppose a manufacturer in Northern Ireland finds a pressing need to use a British standard, divergent from EU standards – a situation that must arise eventually.

Should it be able to do so if it could guarantee the product was only sold in Britain?

A firm in Britain could make an identical product and sell it in Northern Ireland via the “green lane”. Is that not an unsustainable paradox?

The framework creates mechanisms that would allow the company, its trade body or Stormont to refer these issues to the UK-EU joint committee. The obvious fudge would be to let the company register as a trusted trader and put a “not for sale in the EU” label on its products.

Only the improved relationship makes it possible to imagine this being agreed. The framework text is clear that EU standards must be observed.

So when the first business declares it needs to use a British standard, it will most likely be dealt with as an exception. The framework makes a number of exceptions for emotive special cases, with pet animal and garden plants the best-known examples, but steel and second-hand cars receive similar treatment. Manufacturers and retailers are good at making emotive special cases for themselves.

There are clearly Irish nationalists who hope Northern Ireland will become a UK-EU condominium, as a staging post to a united Ireland

The next question about the new relationship is its cumulative direction. As the exceptions and flexibilities add up, where do they lead?

It is widely assumed the framework will keep the UK tied to the EU, perhaps drawing it into closer alignment. For some people, this is a benefit. For others it is a trap.

The official Conservative line is that the UK can now diverge from the EU without everyone falling out. Northern Ireland should be able to share the benefits of divergence, such as participation in UK trade deals.

Some Tory Brexiteers reportedly hope the framework will fade away once the UK is trusted to protect the EU single market.

There are clearly Irish nationalists who hope Northern Ireland will become a UK-EU condominium, as a staging post to a united Ireland.

What all these people have in common is an understanding that the new relationship is the key to their hopes or fears. Even those who suspect the EU will act in bad faith know the UK must act in good faith to expose it.

Of all the protocol protagonists, only the DUP is caught in a legalistic critique of the framework. It knows the relationship matters, of course, but “suck it and see” is a hard message to sell on what it has portrayed as an existential matter of principle.

Other unionists can manage it. The UUP says the framework needs improvement but only the new relationship can improve it. However, the UUP is not at risk of being blamed for Brexit’s problems.

Stalling until after May’s council elections, which appears to be the DUP’s plan, has doomed it to several months of nit-picking and mischief-making, none of it conducive to welcoming a new spirit of partnership.

The British government has not helped by selling the framework as a legal breakthrough, with the new relationship a pleasing detail. The opposite is the case. The EU has been a mirror image, hailing the new relationship while insisting it has delivered no fundamental legal changes.

Cutting through these countervailing spins should not be beyond the DUP’s political abilities.

It increasingly seems the party’s best-case scenario is to grudgingly, partially accept the framework, although not endorse it, then revive Stormont with the excuse of needing a platform to stand up to Brussels.

That may be a sufficient tactic to cover a retreat and get back to work. But it will not make friends along the way.