Deirdre Heenan: Time for DUP to start listening

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

Lord Bew spoke about the DUP's opposition to the Windsor Framework on the BBC's Sunday Politics programme
Lord Bew spoke about the DUP's opposition to the Windsor Framework on the BBC's Sunday Politics programme

Lord Paul Bew, former advisor to David Trimble and distinguished academic, has ruffled some unionist feathers by suggesting that the DUP’s current political strategy is short-sighted and self-defeating.

On BBC's Sunday Politics he claimed that the Windsor Framework was the best way for unionists to achieve their objectives. Whilst acknowledging that the trade deal was “highly imperfect", he urged unionists to end their pointless opposition and instead work within the framework that had been agreed by the EU and the British government.

Yes, there are still outstanding concerns around the technical and legal complexities but these would be best addressed from within a fully functioning Assembly. It is not, as some have erroneously suggested, operationally worse than the protocol but actually “softens it”.

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Returning to Stormont would afford unionists greater leverage and present opportunities to effect meaningful changes. For example, it would present the opportunity to test the effectiveness of the Stormont Brake, the mechanism designed to enable the Assembly to challenge the application of any EU laws in Northern Ireland.

Lord Bew’s assessment of the DUP’s ubiquitous seven tests was particularly withering. According to his analysis these tests fail to mention some of the issues that are now being presented as major obstacles, such as EU law. If you were really exercised about this issue, wouldn’t you have mentioned it in the seven tests? This has only recently emerged as a major impediment to restoring the devolved institutions.

Sir Jeffrey has claimed that his seven tests were based on what British government ministers asserted was a reasonable outcome. Yet this is manifestly incorrect. No UK minister has ever promised that Northern Ireland could have dual market access and not be subject to relevant EU rules. That would be a ludicrous proposition, yet it appears to be what the DUP are currently demanding.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

Paul Bew’s narrative was refreshingly frank and grounded in the context of the current political realities. The Windsor Framework is here to stay, and Sunak’s government haven’t the slightest interest in re-opening that debate. That ship has sailed. Indulging in fantasies will not alter this reality. As he rightly points out, the fundamental question is what are unionists going to do next?

Isolation is dangerous. Chasing some sort of balanced perfection for the union demonstrates a limited knowledge and understanding of UK constitutional history. The DUP interpretation has been dismissed by the highest court in the land.

They must accept the consequences of their own foolish decision to push for a hard Brexit. Saying that’s not fair is hardly political strategy. Rather than being obstructionist, doubling-down and playing the blame game, the party could use the pathways within the framework to address their concerns.

This informed assessment makes a refreshing change from the usual diatribe about subjugation, abandonment and foreign laws offered by Hoey, Habib and Allister. As the slightly bemused peer noted, to date the only solution offered from the deluded corner is Habib’s suggestion that the DUP should fight elections in Britain.

If this does not reveal how seriously out of touch he is, then I don’t know what would. Can you imagine the reception the party would get in Liverpool, Manchester or Durham? The idea that they could gain any sort of traction outside of here is for the birds. Most people in Britain would gladly get rid of this troublesome region. The DUP and its band of merry acolytes would get a rude awakening. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs if you are depending on Ben Habib for your political strategy.

Lord Bew’s intervention cannot be easily dismissed as “honeyed words” or “rolling over”. He is a realist, a pragmatist, a historian, a unionist. A man who wants to remain in the United Kingdom. He can see that the DUP’s actions are threatening the future of the place they profess to love and everything they claim to stand for.

If they don’t want to end up totally irrelevant, they would do well to listen to him.