Brexit Institute News

The Northern Ireland Protocol: What next for the Democratic Unionist Party?

Henry Jarrett (University of Exeter)

What is the Protocol?

Despite featuring little in the referendum campaigns of both the Leave and Remain camps, the Northern Ireland border became arguably the most significant sticking point of the Brexit negotiations after the UK voted to leave the EU on 23rd June 2016. The key challenge for the UK government manifested itself in the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland whilst also demonstrating to the British public that Brexit really is a full break from the EU. Implementing the former could have imperilled the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement that has been largely successful in managing conflict in Northern Ireland over the past two decades. Conversely, no hard border would likely have resulted in the UK being forced to remain in the EU single market and customs union, with the government being unable to sell it as a ‘true’ Brexit. Instead, a compromise was found.

In the early days of the negotiations, the British prime minister at the time, Theresa May, insisted that ‘no UK prime minister could ever agree’ to an Irish Sea border that effectively creates one set of rules for Great Britain and another for Northern Ireland. Similarly, her successor – and now incumbent – Boris Johnson, stated that ‘no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement’. Nevertheless, an Irish Sea border is exactly what was included in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Johnson and implemented in January 2021. This provision is known as the Northern Ireland Protocol and has resulted in Great Britain leaving the EU single market and customs union, with Northern Ireland de facto remaining in both. Whilst this compromise avoids the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland and allows the British government to present the new arrangements as a ‘true’ Brexit (if only to the public in Great Britain and not Northern Ireland), it nevertheless necessitates the need for checks on goods moving between the two jurisdictions of the UK and therefore establishes at least some aspects of a border in the Irish Sea.

What is the DUP’s position on Brexit and the Protocol?

The DUP – the largest political party in Northern Ireland since the early 2000s – supported holding a referendum on the UK’s EU membership and campaigned for a Leave vote. This position was shared by a majority of unionists, with 66% voting Leave. After the snap UK general election in June 2017 at which the May-led Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority, the DUP entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Tories. As Northern Ireland became an ever more significant issue in the Brexit negotiations, the party simultaneously wanted a deal that ensured the region would be treated no differently to the rest of the UK and one that avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland. The only conceivable way that this could have been achieved is by a ‘soft’ Brexit, with the entire UK remaining in the EU single market and customs union, and many consider it a missed opportunity that the DUP did not utilise its influence on the British government to a greater extent during 2017 to 2019 to push for this outcome.

The DUP opposed Johnson’s trade deal with the EU and, by extension, the Protocol, as part of the Withdrawal Agreement in a parliamentary vote in December 2020. Nevertheless, many unionists hold the party at least partly responsible for Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market and customs union whilst Great Britain left, and thus believe that the region is not being treated as a fully-fledged part of the UK, as it did not do more to avoid this outcome when it had some influence over the British government. This resulted in loyalist-led violence in several towns and cities earlier this year and has contributed to declining support for the party. Dissatisfaction of the DUP among unionists over the Protocol (as well as other issues such as abortion and an Irish language act) also led to the ousting of its leader and first minister, Arlene Foster, in April, with party colleagues Edwin Poots and Paul Givan replacing her as leader and first minister respectively.

What next for the DUP?

On 17th June, Poots resigned as DUP leader after just 21 days in charge. Contributing factors include internal party dissatisfaction with ministerial appointments (principally Givan as first minister) and opposition to an Irish language act, along with underlying concerns over the party’s direction regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol. It is currently unclear whether Givan will continue as first minister. The key challenge facing the DUP nevertheless remains the same, regardless of who assumes the now vacant leadership position: how to balance the wishes of liberal-minded unionists with those of loyalists opposing the Protocol. Recent polling data indicates that the party is haemorrhaging support from the former to the cross-communal Alliance Party and the latter to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice. Should this be replicated at the forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election (to be held on or before 5th May 2022), Sinn Fein would emerge as the largest party and would thus be entitled to the first minister post.

Before his resignation, Poots expressed a desire for the Protocol to be terminated, stating that it is ‘so damaging for all of Northern Ireland’. Will his successor share this position? The result of the forthcoming leadership election will no doubt reveal much about what the future holds for the DUP.


Dr Henry Jarrett is an associate lecturer at the University of Exeter.

The views expressed in this article reflect only the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog.

WordPress PopUp Plugin