Hilary Benn sent an unsubtle message to the DUP in the Commons last week.
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary said his party supports Conservative efforts to restore Stormont and is committed to implementing the Windsor Framework once in office.
Addressing Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, but clearly speaking to the DUP MPs behind him, Benn continued: “There would be no prospect of negotiating with the European Union further arrangements of benefit to Northern Ireland if the UK were to renege, again, on an international agreement.”
This message had two parts. The first warned the DUP it is pointless to hold out for a Labour government. The second offered hope: Labour’s purpose in implementing the Windsor Framework will be to build trust with Europe, negotiate new arrangements and ultimately make the sea border disappear.
Benn said something similar at Labour’s annual last October, when he suggested the party’s aim is an EU association agreement. This is a broad term but it appeared to mean de facto single market membership.
The UK is hardly guaranteed such a deal. As Benn noted, association agreements are seen as a prelude to full EU membership and Brussels has never signed one with a country that has left. Ironically, the concept was devised in 1957 to try to get the UK to join.
On the other hand, Benn’s comments received encouraging noises from the EU’s ambassador to the UK, sitting beside him on the conference panel. The EU proclaims it is a creature of rules partly to disguise how much it is a creature of politics – and a Labour government will transform UK-EU politics.
In any case, it would not take a particularly close association to render swathes of the Windsor Framework redundant. Just a veterinary agreement could sweep much of the sea border away. None of this would require reopening the Windsor Framework, which the EU has no intention of doing. The framework allows itself to lapse as new deals supersede it.
Why is the DUP ignoring the escape route Labour is offering?
It cannot be through any lingering loyalty to the Tories. Tragically, it appears to be through loyalty to Brexit and weakness in the face of a handful of hardliners.
Some in the DUP believe single-market alignment would betray the EU referendum, although the Leave campaign, with which the DUP was closely involved, repeatedly said the UK would not leave the single market.
In an article last September, DUP MP Sammy Wilson warned that Labour and the Tories are both trying to use Northern Ireland to realign the whole UK with Europe and even if this solved unionism’s sea border problem, “it would be contrary to the will of the majority of the people of the UK who voted to leave and to the firm belief which I have that the UK is better off out of the EU”.
He added that Benn is “a clever political operator and not a person to miss a chance to promote his agenda while parcelling it up in attractive wrapping paper”.
Wilson’s alternative is mutual enforcement, where the UK would apply its own or the EU’s rules depending on whether goods were being sold in the UK or Europe.
The other vocal DUP supporter of this idea is Nigel Dodds. For him, the attraction seems to be less about a UK-wide hard Brexit than about removing the “constitutional vandalism” of EU jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.
Benn’s vision will probably play out regardless but without the DUP seeking any input or being able to claim any credit. It is lamentable leadership
Mutual enforcement is a neat theory, briefly advocated by the government in 2022, but it would be overly complex in practice. Businesses here do not want it and neither does any other party except the TUV. Brussels has ruled it out, the Tories have given up on it and Labour has no interest in it. These are obstacles the DUP cannot possibly overcome.
A report promoting mutual enforcement was published last June by the Centre for Brexit Policy, a cross-party Brexiteer think-tank where Wilson is a director.
Donaldson attended the launch, then issued a bland statement declaring it “a concept worthy of serious and sustained consideration in terms of delivering a longer-term solution”.
In other words, like everything else, he kicked it into the long grass.
There is no sign he has spent the six months since pointing his party towards Labour’s long-term solution, or urging Wilson and Dodds to accept the game is up.
Benn’s vision will probably play out regardless but without the DUP seeking any input or being able to claim any credit. It is lamentable leadership.