Can a protocol deal please Brussels and Ballymena?

Can a protocol deal please Brussels and Ballymena?

WHEN viewing political events from some distance I always hope that what you see above the waterline is but a fragment of what is really going on beneath the surface.

That even when things look bleak and immovable, and feeling depressed about the future seems the only realistic course that there is a possibility, however slight, that hope springs eternal and things are actually more positive in reality.

It’s a bit like that at the moment with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

We are told, by various media reports in recent days, that the outline of a deal between the British government and European Union is done - and sat on Rishi Sunak’s desk.

Basically, it involves a slight adjustment to the existing protocol, allowing goods that are destined for Northern Ireland to be imported from Britain via a ‘green’ lane where they receive light touch treatment.

Goods headed for the Republic, and potentially on into the EU, go through a ‘red’ land where they face more stringent checks.

The British government has had to promise to share real-time data with EU officials to make all this work, so that they know what’s landing, where and when.

There will also be a need for border infrastructure at Northern Ireland’s ports (although it probably won’t get called that to avoid accusations this amounts to a ‘border-in-the-Irish-Sea’).

On the issue of the role of the European Court of Justice, Sunak appears to have conceded that it will be the final arbiter of legal challenges around the operation of the protocol, although the Northern Ireland courts will be the first avenue to resolve disputes.

All in all, it seems a pretty big cave-in for the British government.

Especially as this package of measures was on offer back in October 2021, when the European Commission and Irish government, after exhaustive consultation with businesses across Northern Ireland, suggested a series of workable reforms to the protocol.

We have simply wasted 16 months, while the NHS in Northern Ireland collapses and one in three people languish on a waiting list due to the executive and assembly not functioning.

Anyway, better late than never.

The challenge for Rishi Sunak is whether he can sell all this to the DUP, allowing the restoration of Stormont, while still meeting the EU’s expectations.

In other words, can he please both Brussels and Ballymena?

In turn, the pressure is on Jeffrey Donaldson to cut the DUP away from the hardline, anti-protocolistas for whom no deal will ever be acceptable.

That’s why he has set out ‘seven tests’ or ‘red lines’ which have to be met before he would lead his party back into government.

Frankly, they are so loose that Salvador Dali could have drawn them - with Downing Street briefing journalists that they are confident they can sell the deal and meet the DUP’s stipulations.

For instance, they insist the protocol ‘must be replaced with arrangements that protects Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom’.

This is wide-open to interpretation, allowing Donaldson the wiggle-room he needs to cautiously accept the Sunak deal.

As ever cash and patronage will help to lubricate the DUP’s climbdown.

We are a month away from the Budget. Expect Treasury officials to be instructed to pore over the DUP’s last manifesto for suitable projects that they have miraculously found money for.

And we have the Coronation of King Charles in May. No doubt the request is quietly being made for suitable candidates to be included in the honours list that will accompany the occasion.

This, then, is how all big political deals are done: commonsense and pragmatism eventually overwhelms bluster and sidelines the unyielding.

We can’t see it yet, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

The levers of British government are being pulled and big concession is being prepared in Downing Street, with Brussels trying not to gloat about what it means.

And the DUP will paint on its biggest smile and dress this all up as a victory.

Fine, so be it.

Then Northern Ireland can get back to business.

Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it will Come About’ and ‘What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division’