There was a good deal of stage management in the presentation of the Windsor Framework on Monday. Sunak and Von Der Leyen and everyone on the inside of the negotiations maintained the pretence that the deal was not finalised over the previous weekend in order to keep its detail tight and to control its publication.
The EU has shown maximum pragmatism and flexibility consistent with maintaining Northern Ireland’s status within the single market and keeping the Irish border open. Use of the green and red channel system means that paperwork obstacles to free movement of goods, pets, parcels, medicines, plants, and seed potatoes within the UK is almost completely avoided.
The EU has conceded that red/green channels and data sharing are sufficient safeguard for protecting the integrity of the North’s dual status for movement of goods within the EU and the UK. From a day-to-day practical perspective, citizens in Northern Ireland will simply not encounter any adverse consequences from the operation of the Protocol in their lives.
So, what is the DUP up to now? The simple answer is saving face.
Unionist farmers, shoppers, business owners, and consumers will have the best of both worlds – free access to the UK and Irish economies. The few red lanes are reserved for goods transiting to the Republic; nobody but a political extremist could reasonably object to their presence in northern cross-channel ports or ask for them to be speckled along the entire land border. They don’t affect sovereignty - whether located in Larne or Stranraer.
Manufactured and theoretical objections based on alleged diminution of the North’s status are bogus; the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is only alterable by the decision of a majority of its voters in a plebiscite. That remains the position. But its economic status is hugely enhanced by dual membership of the single market and the UK market.
Because the Windsor Framework will accord a right for 30 MLAs from at least two parties (not necessarily cross-community) to trigger a process in which Westminster can protect the North from any future significant and harmful changes in the single market regulatory regime, the maintenance of a general uniformity in single-market rules simply does not create any real likelihood of adverse outcomes for the unionist community.
Of course, if the DUP thinks that it cannot rely on Westminster in future to defend unionist interests, they should reflect on the fact that it has never been the case that the sovereign parliament of the UK was constitutionally bound to do their bidding. The Act of Union and the Government of Ireland Act are only effective in UK constitutional terms as long as Westminster maintains them.
An emotional Steve Baker spoke on Monday about his personal struggles with the effects of fighting the ERG and DUP battles on Northern Ireland at Westminster. His sincerity, to my mind, contrasted with the casual and opportunistic negativity in the reactions of Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson. They seem to me to be grasping at any straw to delay resumption of power-sharing at Stormont.
Perhaps they see the prospect of rolling the electoral dice once more with a view to out-polling Sinn Féin and securing one more go at nominating the First Minister. Perhaps they think they can devour the political cadaver of Doug Beattie’s Ulster Unionists and seeing off the TUV challenge. Perhaps the Tories would afford them such a chance.
Beattie now has a chance to endorse the Windsor Framework and re-assert his party’s claim to be the voice of moderate unionism. If he fumbles this political Garryowen, he will not escape the status of a beaten political docket. For him, it’s now or never, I think.
As for Boris, Jacob Rees Mogg, Suella Braverman, and the remnants of the ERG group, one can only admire the graciousness of Sunak’s footwork. He has avoided a visible confrontation with them; if they continue their muted brand of political sedition, he can simply marginalise them at his leisure.
Railing against the EU, the US, and reasonable voters increasingly disillusioned with the economic outcome of their decision in the Brexit referendum is stony ground politically; even the Tory press has copped on to the futility of perpetual warfare with the EU.
As a Brexiteer himself, Sunak now has some room to distance himself from the extremists who sold the lie that Brexit would yield £350 million a week to be spent on the National Health Service.
I don’t think that the DUP will be able to meekly accept that Sunak has done as good a job for the people of Northern Ireland as anyone could. In the polarised politics of competitive grievance and victimhood that have held sway since 1998 in Northern Ireland, there is always a premium on acting with dogged irrationality and partisanship.
We can but live in hope.