Has Rishi Sunak done what others have failed to do?

01 March 2023 - by Gráinne Walsh

'Nobody else has that. No one. Only you guys, only here’ – Rishi Sunak PM, speaking this week in Lisburn Co. Antrim

You always know it’s serious when Radio 4’s Today Programme comes to Belfast, and this week we had Martha Kearney interviewing the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. From the minutiae of what goods can pass through red and green lanes on their way in Northern Ireland to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU, please spare a thought for those of us who have to wade our way through the nicely named Windsor Framework.

So, has this PM and his team, done what others have failed to do? Has he benefited from the tough stance of the DUP and the tenacious work of business representative organisations or indeed loyalist opposition? Or is it basic maths - the size of the government’s majority multiplied by the passage of time divided by the number of other issues that need our attention – Ukraine, inflation and the desperate search for tomatoes on our supermarket shelves?

So, what’s the reaction so far? In two words – mostly predictable. The naysayers are naysaying with Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice critical that Northern Ireland remains in the Single Market for Goods and within the ambit of the CJEU. With some unionist commentators celebrating the wins, the first question is where will the DUP land? Secondly, how long will they take to reach a position and thirdly, what does this mean for devolved government?

With any number of legally qualified colleagues - from Emma Little Pengelly to Gavin Robinson, Peter Weir and Nigel Dodds, Jeffery Donaldson will have expert interpretations galore but these will have to be balanced with the emotional context of the party’s relationship with the UK, and indeed the EU.

Practical political considerations will also weigh on his mind - what impact will any decision have on the local government elections due to take place on May 18? What impact will staying out of the devolved institutions have on party morale and party coffers? What does he tell his MLA colleagues, some of them newly elected to the Assembly, especially if there is another cut in salaries?

While the pro remain parties have welcomed the Framework in principle at least, the vast majority of people and organisations are reserving their opinion until they have read the detail, and what a lot of detail there is. Of particular interest is the Stormont Brake (not break), the mechanism devised to enable a group of 30 MLAs to signal their discontent with future EU legislative change.

How this will work in practice remains to be seen, what’s the bar? What constitutes ‘significant impact’? Could it introduce a destabilising mechanism to any restored Assembly? Let’s see what the legal text says.

Speaking today at a soft drinks manufacturing plant in Lisburn, the PM was selling a promising and prosperous vision of this place, saying 'Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position - unique position in the entire world - in having privileged access not just to the UK market… but also the EU single market'.

With the harsh realities of global economics and politics driving both the UK and the EU to bring this phase of Brexit to an end and talk of an investment conference planned for the autumn, the challenge for NI politicians should the DUP give the deal the green light will be to deliver on the optimism of new UK-EU relationship outlined by Sunak and Von der Leyen at Windsor this week.