My first instinct on hearing of the Windsor Framework, the deal Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reached with the EU, was tremendous relief.
Published: 7 March 2023
Until then I could see no way out of the terrible mess we were in.
Unionists had few friends and were themselves disunited.
Rishi Sunak, highly intelligent and thorough, is a pragmatist as well as a Brexiteer and unionist, and I think what he’s come up with a deal far better than I gloomily thought possible.
But as a check to my optimism, I’ve been talking to hard-headed friends who like me have remained unrepentant Brexiteers throughout the disappointments of the last few years.
Here are the conclusions a few of them came to after heart-searching.
In a News Letter article (‘EU has moved but kept control over much of the NI economy,’ March 2), Graham Gudgin CBE, editor of the pro-Brexit Briefings for Britain, one-time economics adviser to David Trimble, and a supporter of the DUP line on the protocol, ended his agonised weighing up of pros and cons with: “the best bet may be to accept what is on offer as a partial advance while continuing to campaign to remove EU law altogether…inside the Stormont assembly and executive”, where the DUP “will need to persuade other local parties to support major improvements to the Windsor deal”.
I was particularly struck by messages from two people who live in Northern Ireland but for professional reasons have to be anonymous.
The first, an historian, said “These arrangements may leave us different from the rest of the UK but when have we not been? For 50 years – in the high days of unionism – we had our own parliament, a PM and even a Governor!!…
“The Windsor Framework offers us the chance to become the most attractive place in these islands for business. That will make our place in the UK wise, prudent and sustainable.”
And from a very successful local businessman, who takes a wide and long view: “In a world that includes China and Russia, we are very lucky to have 27 fairly stable democracies as neighbours… and it would be crazy not to prioritize them as friends and colleagues in a dangerous world.”
Overall, he thinks the deal will be “very good for Northern Ireland economically…It will have a special position as the only place in the world to have privileged access to two of the top three (UK and EU) most dynamic and exciting and lucrative markets in the world, while at the same time having good cultural, language, trade and investment links with the biggest of them all (US). I mean, for goodness sake, what’s not to like?”
He referred to a survey of non-aligned voters reported last week showing 53% saying their long-term constitutional choice was to maintain the union, with only 19% choosing Irish unity: 34% saw themselves as Northern Irish, 29% as British and 20% as Irish.
He sees the “neithers”, those who identify as neither unionist nor nationalist, as the key to the province’s future and that there is “a big political prize is there for the taking for any party who can grasp how to reach out beyond the old and dying categories.”
“It would be a real shame if this group gets hoovered up by a woke EU-fanatic outfit like the Alliance, and there isn’t an attractive alternative that incorporates centre-right and non-sectarian values such as value-for-money government, lower taxes, a commitment to free speech, free trade etc.”
“The benefits of this deal to the union are practical and real and impact directly on the lives of the people of Northern Ireland,” he says, “while the downsides are a lot more theoretical and not very visible. For that reason I think it will strengthen the union.”
I agree. And if post-Boris the world again trusts our word, the huge possibilities for the UK will include scientific research and financial services, trade agreements and business investment.
“I’ve got to the point where I sincerely believe that ‘the gods’ have once again delivered unionism what they don’t deserve – the chance to snatch success from the jaws of disaster,” said my historian friend.
There is plenty of talent in Northern Ireland.
This deal could unlock it.