DUBLIN — Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson sharpened his criticism of the U.K.-EU agreement on making post-Brexit trade rules work in Northern Ireland — but stopped short of an outright rejection.
Tuesday’s statement came as Donaldson began four days of difficult diplomacy in Washington, where the DUP has few if any allies, in the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day festivities at the White House. The Biden administration has emphasized it wants Donaldson to end his party’s obstruction of power-sharing, the core goal of Northern Ireland’s U.S.-brokered peace deal achieved on Good Friday a quarter-century ago.
But speaking before a series of meetings with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, Donaldson said the Windsor Framework — jointly unveiled last month by U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — “does not deal with some of the fundamental problems” and will “require further clarification, re-working and change.”
While teetering close to the edge of rejection, Donaldson’s carefully calibrated words leave room for the DUP’s eventual acquiescence, if not acceptance, of a painstakingly negotiated London-Brussels deal that seeks to minimize EU-required checks on British goods as they arrive in Northern Irish ports.
His position also keeps open the possibility that the Democratic Unionists still might agree to revive a cross-community government with the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin at Stormont overlooking Belfast. Together they did oversee relatively stable coalition governments from 2007 through 2016 but since have struggled.
Under the Good Friday power-sharing formula, no Stormont government can be formed or sustained unless the two largest parties on each side of the divide — Sinn Féin among Irish Catholics, the Democratic Unionists among British Protestants — both take part.
Donaldson specified that the Windsor Framework fails to fix at least five key unionist criticisms of previous arrangements contained within the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement’s trade protocol on Northern Ireland. This placed post-Brexit checks at ports of entry, rather than along the north’s 310-mile land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. Enforcement of these new “sea border” restrictions since 2021 has boosted all-Ireland trade, as Irish nationalists want, at the expense of previous suppliers based in Britain.
Donaldson said the Windsor Framework didn’t fully reverse the undermining of Northern Ireland’s constitutional union with Britain; wasn’t sufficiently clear on how goods staying in Northern Ireland could avoid any checks in a proposed “green lane” at the ports; and left Northern Ireland at risk of growing regulatory incompatibility with the rest of the U.K. market.
He said the Windsor Framework still obliged Northern Ireland firms to observe EU laws on goods even if “they only trade within the United Kingdom.”
Perhaps most crucially, Donaldson suggested that Windsor’s big democratic reassurance to unionists — that a revived Northern Ireland Assembly would gain powers to block the rollout of new EU goods laws in the region — might be nothing of the sort.
However, Donaldson stressed that the DUP was committed to securing changes and additions to the Windsor Framework through ongoing discussions with the U.K. government. He noted it had yet to publish a range of bills that would be required to translate the framework’s aims into legal reality.
“We will continue with that engagement to ensure that we get an outcome that works and which can be considered against our seven tests,” Donaldson said, referring to the DUP’s 2021 list of demands for replacing the trade protocol.
Some hardliners in Northern Ireland welcomed Donaldson’s latest words as a sign that the DUP was edging toward rejection, with an official verdict expected next month. They want the DUP to rule out renewed cooperation with Sinn Féin.
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson – who despite holding no elected office wields influence in DUP circles and regularly meets Donaldson – called Tuesday’s assessment of the Windsor Framework a recognition that “there is no present basis for power-sharing.”