Lee Reynolds is a former Special Adviser to Arlene Foster, then First Minister of Northern Ireland, and was previously Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionist Party.
As Rishi Sunak seeks to secure an agreement with the European Union about the future place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom’s own market, it is worth recalling where the thorny problem of the sea border came from.
The first proposals during the Brexit negotiations were in the Joint Report of December 2017 – and immediately plunged the confidence and supply deal between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionists into crisis.
Over days of talks, the DUP sought seven changes. They secured six, before Theresa May, then the Prime Minister, concluded negotiations by announcing she was getting on a plane to Brussels to launch a revised report.
When the EU later reneged these changes, it appeared that a lesson had been learned. The Government rejected Brussels’ proposals on Northern Ireland in 2018’s Draft Withdrawal Agreement. In Parliament, both May and Jeremy Corbyn rejected the idea of a sea border.
The Chequers proposals were the next attempt to break the logjam. These caused visible tension within the Conservatives, although the DUP kept a low profile.
However, Chequers was to demonstrate an example of an EU negotiation tactic that it would use repeatedly: demand proposals from the UK, then dismiss whatever it sent them.
Leaks began to appear to the effect that a sea border was back on the table; the DUP returned to the fray, giving May detailed objections to what the EU seemed to be suggesting.
It might seem strange that a Government maintained in office by Unionist votes would contemplate a sea border. But then May made a habit of excluding members of her own Cabinet from her negotiation strategy – why should the DUP be any different?
This reliance on her core team of loyal aides reflected the Prime Minister’s badly weakened position after the 2017 election. The DUP shared the prevailing assumption that she wouldn’t survive; had the Tories not always been ruthless with losing leaders?
But survive she did; no candidate or faction felt sure enough to move against her. It was the first sign of the dysfunction that has since gripped the Conservative Party.
May undoubtedly approached her role with an admirable sense of public duty. Less obvious was any clear sense of purpose, which tended to be provided by others.
When those others were Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, neither Conservatives nor Unionists had much to worry about. When it was Ollie Robbins and Gavin Barwell, however, it was another story.
Rather than a leader, May seemed at times like a vehicle, capable of motoring forward but not of choosing her own path. In the end, she went over a cliff for the sake of other’s plans, harming Northern Ireland’s rightful place in the UK economy along with it.
May’s advisors claimed, and perhaps thought, they had devised a clever solution to the border problem, a myth still peddled today by those who claim we could have avoided this problem by passing her deal.
In truth, the very worst of what had been leaked proved true, and Dublin could scarcely believe its luck. Instead of solving the problem, Barwell and Robbins merely moved it.
The device in May’s November 2018 deal was to a two-stage sea border inside the UK.
From day one there was to be a regulatory border between Ulster and Great Britain, with the so-called Backstop of a full customs border inside the UK if Parliament dared to diverge from the EU.
Northern Ireland would have become an economic hostage, either blamed for scuppering Brexit or economically cut off from the rest of the country.
Perhaps this sounds like Ulster paranoia. But the Attorney General’s legal advice concluded the same.
Unionists’ fear of this sword of Damocles was treated as irrational. No government would actually diverge, we were told; the consequences would simply not be acceptable.
But these assurances were offered by the same people who had spent the previous days and weeks swearing they would never agree anything like it in the first place!
Moreover, the sea border would be masked rather than abolished. Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU would be a matter of treaty law; that with the UK a matter of government policy.
There was one partial solution: not the consultative mechanism publicly offered, but a legislative guarantee that Great Britain would not diverge. But this had the inherent weakness of parliamentary sovereignty.
Downing Street hatched a plan to get the deal over the line. A few days before the official deal announcement a lobby journalist made the trip to Belfast and kindly laid it out to me over coffee.
It had three elements. One, fill the DUP’s mouths with gold; it had got the confidence and supply deal, after all.
Two, business groups would proclaim with one voice the best-of-both-worlds line to heap pressure on the party – and cut off business donations if it didn’t.
Three, threaten us with Corbyn. Bribery, blackmail, and threats, in short.
It would not have worked. The DUP had not compromised our principles to strike the confidence and supply deal. Unionist voters both wanted Corbyn’s path to Downing Street blocked and something to show for it; the money showed the Union working, delivering central government investment in the Province.
May’s deal undermined Northern Ireland’s economic place in the UK. Money wasn’t going to solve that fundamental problem.
Nor was lobbying from corporate interests going to sway the DUP. Great Britain is Ulster’s most important market, and in any event the party’s public accounts show that business donations play only a small role in its finances.
As for Corbyn, in a world where May proceeded with her plan his opposition would (although this was certainly not his intention) have been the more unionist position.
The plan failed; the deal was dead on arrival. The farce of the meaningful votes followed, and May’s downfall shortly thereafter. The sea border remains an open sore, and the rifts opened inside the Tory Party by the row have yet to heal.
Has Team Sunak learned anything from this? Early signs such as his leadership election commitments on the Protocol Bill, were promising.
But that early ray of light is fading fast. As the Prime Minister delays the announcement of his new deal with Brussels, the same clever sources are telling journalists how London and Brussels will bull-rush Unionism.
Yet those who want to ignore Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s Seven Tests seem to forget that they were not plucked from the sky: they are based on commitments made by the Government, not least the NI Protocol Bill. Thus, far from showing up the DUP, those dismissing our red lines are merely trumpeting yet another defeat in Brussels for the UK Government.
Perhaps his team think bulldozing a deal through will boost the Conservatives at the next election. They should perhaps recall that the last prime minister to try it didn’t even reach the next election.