The most significant aspect of the DUP-Conservative deal is that the European Commission has gone along with it.
There is little new or substantial in the deal itself. One notable exception is letting more goods from the rest of the world flow freely into Northern Ireland from Britain, making it simpler for the UK to sign trade deals and for Northern Ireland to benefit.
This is a proposal from the EU-UK joint committee of the Windsor Framework. It must still be approved by a majority of EU member states but that is considered a formality. Although the committee and the deal are separate processes, there was striking choreography between them. London and Brussels published joint proposals on Tuesday, having worked on them for almost a year. The proposals then appeared in the text of the deal, published the following day.
Trade experts began disputing if this was a legal change to the Windsor Framework, which had been considered impossible. Opinions differ; what matters is London and Brussels have agreed to fudge the question.
Selling this as a triumph presents a conundrum for the DUP. The EU’s gracious permission for more trade within the UK hardly proves the EU’s role has been reduced. Nevertheless, that is the world we are now in. Welcome to the real ‘joint authority’.
There has also clearly been choreography with Sinn Féin. The party has been briefed on the deal for months, hence its relaxed approach to things that might otherwise raise republican hackles, such as a new east-west UK trade body, legislation on Northern Ireland’s place in the union and removing a legal reference to the “all-island economy”.
The conundrum for Sinn Féin is how to explain all this is meaningless, without contradicting past positions or upsetting the DUP to an extent that appears irresponsible. Best to say nothing.
Jamie Bryson caused a sensation by live-tweeting the DUP executive meeting on the Stormont deal. Northern Ireland has not been gripped by a water cooler moment quite like it since BBC Panorama’s legendary 2003 investigation into loyalist feuding, although the victim in this case was a DUP leader’s dignity rather than a UDA leader’s chihuahua.
Bryson’s actions may have backfired by demonstrating to wavering DUP members the chaos that lies ahead if they do not pull together. His source is now his hostage, to be revealed at his convenience, unless discovered by the party first.
A challenging question for the media is how much of Bryson’s activism counts as journalism. He certainly got the story out first.
Mary Lou McDonald said a united Ireland is “within touching distance” as she welcomed Stormont’s return. This earned considerable coverage and some criticism, yet the Sinn Féin president was merely responding to a direct question and her full answer was more equivocal. On the same day, she corrected a Sky News presenter who suggested a united Ireland was “inevitable”.
Rather than fretting about a republican leader mentioning her primary goal, unionists should be more concerned that British journalists keep bringing it up.
Sinn Féin might be concerned that Irish journalists know better.
For much of the UK press, the main Northern Ireland story this week was Manchester soccerball player Marcus Rashford enjoying a night out in Belfast. This was priceless publicity for the city, so it was unfortunate he was reported asking why everything was shut by 3am
Among the surprises emerging from the deal is that the DUP will ‘test’ the Stormont brake within a month. This will refer several EU laws to Westminster, where the government has agreed to mitigate their application to Northern Ireland.
Pulling the brake requires 30 MLAs from two or more parties - the same as the petition of concern. So unionism can do it alone, although the DUP requires UUP cooperation. Pairing up with the TUV is not enough.
Sinn Féin has presumably been briefed on this plan, to prevent an early row. It will be fascinating to see how nationalists respond to the vote itself. Will they object, join in or just leave unionists to it? The brake will not always be a neatly green versus orange issue. There will be occasions when EU law raises cross-community concern, or concern for nationalists in particular.
The deal goes beyond Brexit with a lengthy annex of plans to ‘strengthen the union’. Most are rehashed from New Decade, New Approach and the 2021 Union Connectivity Review, such as upgrading the A75 in Scotland. One original idea is asking Washington for US immigration pre-clearance at Belfast International Airport.
In addition to being the wrong union, this would be a monumental challenge. Dublin has pre-clearance for reasons of history and affection but almost all attempts to extend it elsewhere have faltered due to cost and the need for a large, secure terminal space.
A project that proved impractical in Hong Kong, Dubai and Amsterdam is unlikely to be viable in Crumlin. Belfast International cannot even sustain one scheduled US flight.
Among the many problems overlooked during the DUP’s Brexit drama has been the crisis at the Police Ombudsman’s office. Last October, the PSNI asked West Midlands Police to investigate an incident at ombudsman Marie Anderson’s home. In November, the chief constable told the Policing Board he expected this to conclude “in weeks rather than months”. That was three months ago. Nobody will say any more on the grounds there this is a live investigation - it is not even known if Anderson is at her desk.
For much of the UK press, the main Northern Ireland story this week was Manchester soccerball player Marcus Rashford enjoying two nights out in Belfast. This was priceless publicity for the city, so it was unfortunate he was reported asking why everything was shut by 3am. Although Northern Ireland’s licensing laws were relaxed three years ago, liberalisation could go much further. Belfast is acquiring a city centre uniquely and unusually populated by students. It could be one of the greatest nightlife destinations in the world.
Last November, I wrote here that as even Sir Jeffrey Donaldson did not know exactly when Stormont would return, we might as well take the prediction from Old Moore’s Almanac that Northern Ireland would “enter a phase of reorganisation” in February 2024. As this has turned out to be spot on, it might be worth noting the same almanac says Ireland will get its first female taoiseach in 2025, but only after she has a difficult year.
There is a fine line between political commentary and clairvoyance and this column is not afraid to cross it.