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DUP Lays Ground For Potential Summer Return To Stormont

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP)

4 min read

Hope is growing that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is preparing for a return to Northern Ireland's political institutions this summer.

Emollient public remarks by DUP MPs in the last 24 hours have boosted optimism that the party is preparing to end its post-Brexit boycott of Stormont dating back to early last year.

Emma Little-Pengelly, the party’s MLA for Lagan Valley, today told an event marking the 25th anniversary of Good Friday Agreement at Queen’s University in Belfast there was a “pathway” to the region’s institutions being restored.

"Progress has been made. There is a pathway,” she told the ‘Agreement 25’ conference.

“Certainly from my point of view, I'm hugely positive that by working together constructively, you can build that brighter, better future for everyone."

Speaking at the same conference on Monday, Ian Paisley Jr, the DUP MP for North Antrim who has advocated a particularly hard line on the party’s Brexit stance, said that while the unionist voters he speaks to had fallen "out of love" with Stormont, the institutions "could be the only way to preserve the Union".

The party’s senior officers met on Monday to discuss for the first time the findings of a report into the views of unionist communities on the Windsor framework agreed by the UK government and European Union, PoliticsHome understands.

The report, commissioned by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, expressed a recognition that Stormont "is the only show in town”, according to a figure familiar with those discussions.

PoliticsHome recently reported government figures were hopeful that the DUP would agree to return to Stormont after Northern Ireland’s local elections on 18 May.

DUP figures stress the party will not return to power sharing until the UK government delivers further legal protections for Northern Ireland's place in the union, which Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris said in early March were forthcoming.

Leader Donaldson warned on Monday that "quick fixes without solid foundations" would not be the basis for stable devolved governance in Northern Ireland.

He was speaking following a meeting with former US president Bill Clinton, who is one of several major international figures in Belfast for the conference, which he described as a "useful exchange".

Donaldson told Clinton he was "speaking for our voters" when it comes to his objections to post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, said a source privy to their conversation.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris speaking in Belfast (Alamy)
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris speaking in Belfast (Alamy)

The DUP walked out of Stormont's devolved power-sharing government at the start of 2022 in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. The deal was agreed as part of the UK's Brexit deal with the EU as a way of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, but did so by creating a contentious trade border in the Irish Sea.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in February signed off changes to the protocol called the Windsor framework, which was formally adopted by London and Brussels after comfortably passing the House of Commons.

While the DUP has described the deal as an improvement on the original protocol, it says it does not do enough to address its concerns about Northern Ireland's place in the Union.

The party has come under pressure from architects of the 1998 peace deal to return to Stormont at the conference in Belfast.

Bertie Ahern, who was Irish Taoiseach when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, said there were "too many big things" facing the people of Northern Ireland and that he would "really plead" the DUP to return to power sharing.

Former prime minister Tony Blair said: "I would say to today's leaders is when you stand back and reflect, you know in your heart of hearts what the right thing to do is and you should just get on and do it."

Speaking at Queen's University on Tuesday, Heaton Harris said the biggest threat to Northern Ireland's place in the Union was the failure of politicians in Stormont to deliver on public prioities.

"I urge all elected officials to take their seats in the assembly and the executive and get to work on the questions of everyday life that matter to the people of Northern Ireland," said the Cabinet minister.

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