Week-in-Review: Stormont is back, but the DUP’s Brexit strains remain

After two years of incapacitation, prevarication and false dawns, the movement towards the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland this week proceeded at a genuine pace. And as far as the careful choreographers in the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and NIO (Northern Ireland Office) are concerned, it’s generally all gone according to schedule.

The first sign that tectonic plates of Northern Ireland politics were shifting — and shifting decisively — came with a House of Commons address from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, last week. In a debate on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, after months of struggling to secure a compromise deal that will placate party hardliners, the typically tight-lipped, inexpressive Donaldson declared his intention to “step up and be a leader”. 

He condemned those within his own party who have been “stirring up” opposition and lashed out at the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party for accusing him of selling out the union. “A unionism that turns in on itself is not the way to go”, he instructed his audience, both within the chamber and far beyond.

At once, Donaldson was softening his position on NI-UK post-Brexit trade and hardening his rhetoric. Those in attendance universally recognised something significant was happening: the DUP was about to bury its stridently defensive instincts, forged through decades of political rupture, and boldly declare “yes” to the NIO’s latest offer on post-Brexit trade. 

And so it has come to pass. Just nine days on from Donaldson’s symbolic commons intervention and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are expected to collect in Stormont today to appoint a new first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. A new statutory guarantee of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as an “integral part of the United Kingdom”; an end to “routine” checks on Great British goods sent to Northern Ireland; and a £3.3 billion financial package, all provided for in the UK government’s “Command Paper”, ultimately assuaged Donaldson’s remaining Stormont doubts. 

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Of course, underlying and informing the DUP leader’s commons address last week was his deep political insecurity — both as the leader of his party and nominal spokesperson for unionism at large. Take also the DUP’s executive meeting on Monday, when Donaldson first presented the new deal to his party top brass. Not only did the meeting of the party’s 120-strong executive close at around 1.00 am — hours later than anticipated — but the blow-by-blow exchanges that preceded Donaldson’s bleary-eyed press conference were live-tweeted by lead loyalist critic, Jamie Bryson.

The implication is that a DUP insider was relaying information to a party antagonist at this most sensitive moment. Sir Jeffrey subsequently insisted that the executive decision had been “decisive”, but the timing and Bryson’s tweeting suggested that supposedly white smoke emanating from DUP HQ was in fact tinged with grey. 

The long road back to power-sharing

The DUP first walked out of power-sharing at Stormont in February 2022 in protest against Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements — which, the party argued, undermined the region’s place in the Union.

As has been well-rehearsed, the UK’s departure from the European Union created a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid the return of a north-south border on the island of Ireland and the consequent destabilisation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But, more broadly, the issue for the DUP has always been that the abstract nouns that drove the Brexit argument in 2016 — namely “freedom”, “sovereignty” and “control” — have very different meanings in the six counties. The nature of Northern Ireland’s political settlement means it is fundamentally unclear where the party’s absolutist visions of Brexit and unionism converge.

Thus, the logical and intellectual instability at the heart of the DUP’s euroscepticism was reframed as UK government betrayal and a boycott of power-sharing inaugurated. The party subsequently issued “seven tests” — party red lines Donaldson would mark a renegotiation of the so-called “Northern Ireland Protocol”, and therefore any return to Stormont, against.

There is no doubt that the 76-page Command Paper entitled “Safeguarding the Union”, published on Wednesday, falls short when it comes to the DUP’s totemic “tests”. That the document fails to meet the party’s incredibly high bar has been admitted by former first minister Arlene Foster, who declared this week that the red lines, after all the posturing and grassroots priming, were not in fact “sacrosanct”. In the long view, these “tests” — which deemed last year’s Windsor Framework (Rishi Sunak’s initial solution to the sticky protocol problem) insufficient — merely served to make the DUP’s inevitable climbdown more difficult than it needed to be.

With this in mind, the real job of the new “Command Paper” was to provide a means by which the DUP could soften its position on the protocol in a way that best saves the party’s blushes among an expectant unionist community. It is a task the document enthusiastically rises to. 

The paper’s focus on East-West (UK-NI) arrangements, including a future “Council”; the patriotic rebranding of the so-called “green” UK-NI trading lane; and generally soppy substance are all aimed to appease likely unionist critics. In one telling section, the Command Paper — noting increasing activism by the Irish government around the possibility of Irish reunification — also “sets out a series of measures to visibly evidence the government’s commitment to Northern Ireland —  and to strengthen it further — as an integral part of the United Kingdom both now, and for the years ahead.”

In fact, Command Paper is so unapologetic in identifying its unionist audience that Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood argues it undermines the Good Friday Agreement by moving away “from the principle of rigorous impartiality” that the UK must abide in Northern Ireland. 

Donaldson’s dilemma

The force of the Command Paper’s arguments and its prospective solidifying of NI’s place in the union, rather like Donaldson’s impassioned commons address, is revealing of its underlying weakness. Because, to some shades of unionist opinion, this latest deal merely constitutes another layer of betrayal — and one to which the DUP has now willingly assented. 

Take Traditional Unionist Voice, the most pointedly anti-protocol party in Northern Ireland. Its leader, Jim Allister, has blasted Donaldson as a “Protocol enabler” and claimed that Northern Ireland “continues to be treated as EU territory”. Alongside Allister, perennial thorn in the DUP’s side Jaime Bryson has argued that ministers who accept a role in the coming Stormont administration would be “implementing the subjugation of the Acts of Union”. Allister, Bryson, alongside Reform UK deputy leader (and candidate in the upcoming Wellingborough by-election) Ben Habib and former Labour MP Baroness Kate Hoey, had commissioned former attorney general for NI John Larkin KC to issue a verdict on the deal. Reporting on Friday, Larkin suggested that it does not “remove customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea”.

But Donaldson will not merely be concerned by the threat of electoral besiegement from external unionist forces. His own party also happens to be split over the deal.

In the House of Commons on Thursday, during the debate on crucial legislation underpinning the deal, Donaldson’s MPs took turns expressing their issues. Indeed, as the DUP leader talked up the positives of the agreement he negotiated, the especially strident Sammy Wilson took it upon himself to knock them down. At one point, the DUP leader turned to his party chief whip to “urge [him] to read all the document”.

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Meanwhile, South Antrim MP Paul Girvan cited concerns about diversion of trade (goods that were sourced in Great Britain but now in Ireland); and Carla Lockhart referenced the EU’s retained role in NI. In the House of Lords, former deputy leader Nigel Dodds asserted that “the Irish Sea border… still exists”. 

It means, although Donaldson successfully navigated the deal through the DUP’s executive on Monday, both intra- and extra-party critics will continue to pore over the command paper in the coming weeks. It makes for a tense, uneasy settlement. There is also no disguising the fact that Donaldson’s apparent negotiating “triumph” on the protocol will culminate in a Sinn Fein MLA, Michelle O’Neill, becoming first minister of Northern Ireland.

Forward to power-sharing

Only time will tell whether the unionist community shares Bryson and Allister’s outrage to the extent that their criticism will bolster the TUV in future assembly and general elections. But internal pressure on Donaldson, informed by sincerely held misgivings about the deal and the perception of the TUV threat, looks set to build over the coming days.

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But perhaps more significantly, the events of the past few days are illustrative of the fact that the unionist political community ceases to speak with one voice. The TUV, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (which has also expressed misgivings about Donaldson’s deal) are in direct competition for votes. Vote splitting, simply, could see the non-aligned Alliance Party continue to win seats in supposed unionist strongholds.

Moreover, if nationalist sympathies now coalesce around a Sinn Fein first minister, it will not be the now-reformed protocol that threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom — but unionist fracture and internal acrimony. With Sinn Fein also advancing in the Republic, the magnitude of this moment can scarcely be understated; and unionism looks set to enter the coming period at odds with itself. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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