The leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party has pulled down the power-sharing executive in a row over post-Brexit trading rules. But his gambit, three months before elections are due, will be difficult to deliver on.
Soon after taking the reins of the Democratic Unionist Party last year, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson met the UK prime minister at the Conservative party conference. Boris Johnson told him then that negotiations with the EU to overhaul post-Brexit trading arrangements for the region would be “short, sharp” and take just three weeks, he claims.
Four months after that pledge, with no breakthrough in sight, Donaldson decided it was time to apply “maximum leverage” on London and Brussels. As he had threatened since September, he pulled the plug on the Stormont government, led by the DUP.
But analysts said the move, which automatically triggered the exit of the nationalist Sinn Féin party’s deputy first minister, had as much to do with politics as with getting rid of customs checks imposed on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain since Brexit.
It could backfire, they say. “It’s a huge, huge gamble,” said Sarah Creighton, a unionist commentator. “He’s backed himself into a corner.”
While polls show a majority of unionist voters oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol — the post-Brexit deal which left Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods but put a customs border in the Irish Sea to prevent the return of a politically sensitive hard border on the island of Ireland — Donaldson’s ability to get it scrapped looks limited. He has said he will not return to government unless it is fixed to his satisfaction.
Brussels has made clear the Brexit deal is enshrined in international law and while it is willing to be flexible and reduce checks as much as possible, it expects London to implement the deal it signed up to.
Furthermore, as one former senior official noted: “Collapsing the executive doesn’t guarantee him success in the elections. He could well lose as many supporters as he gains with this stunt.”
Donaldson has torpedoed the Stormont executive three months before scheduled elections and Sinn Féin, which polls show is well ahead of the DUP and on course to win, has demanded an early vote — something that will be decided upon by London.
Donaldson says the Protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK. But 34 per cent of respondents in a survey by Northern Irish pollster Lucid Talk last month backed the Protocol, albeit with some adjustments. That was virtually level pegging with the 36 per cent who opposed it in principle and wanted it scrapped.
With voters increasingly fed up with their leaders, Michelle O’Neill, the outgoing Sinn Féin deputy first minister, sought to blame the DUP for leaving legislative business, including on education and climate change, in limbo as a result of the executive’s collapse.
Many voters want action on more pressing concerns to them: Northern Ireland already has the UK’s longest health service waiting lists and funding plans have been thrown into disarray by the political crisis since a three-year budget may not now be able to be approved.
Covid-19 restrictions, due to have been removed at an executive meeting next week, also remain up-in-the-air.
Donaldson’s hardball tactic is seen as an attempt to lure hardline unionists away from the Traditional Unionist Voice party which briefly overtook the DUP in polls last year.
According to the Lucid Talk poll last month, 90 per cent of TUV supporters favoured an immediate DUP withdrawal from the Stormont executive.
But the DUP is also fighting to keep its supporters from defecting to the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, only 11 per cent of whose voters wanted Stormont crashed immediately. Lucid Talk found 70 per cent of respondents overall rated Donaldson’s performance bad or awful, more than double UUP leader Doug Beattie’s 31 per cent score.
That poll, however, did not take account of a scandal over offensive language used by Beattie in a series of old tweets, which briefly threatened his leadership and could undermine a recent “Beattie bounce” in support.
Colin Coulter, a professor at Maynooth University, said the DUP looked on course to remain the biggest unionist party but noted increasing numbers of disenchanted young voters. “The real story of unionism is the people who don’t vote,” he said.
The DUP also looked “impotent”, he said, after officials failed to heed its agriculture minister’s order last week to halt customs checks on agricultural and food goods entering Northern Ireland. The High Court in Belfast has suspended the order for a month pending a full judicial review.
Donaldson’s move fires the starting gun early on elections that were not due until May 5. But he has refused to say whether his party, which is already embroiled in internal rows over candidate selections, will serve alongside Sinn Féin if the DUP comes second, even though the first and deputy first ministers’ roles are legally equal.
That could result in the collapse of devolution and Northern Ireland being ruled at least temporarily from Westminster — something that may end up playing into the hands of Sinn Féin, whose policy objective is a united Ireland.
“Anything that makes Northern Ireland look like a failure is good for Sinn Féin,” said the former official. “If Jeffrey Donaldson doesn’t go into power with them, it suits them — they can play the victim.”