Is Northern Ireland's Political Deadlock Running Out Of Road?
DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson and Peter Robinson arrive for a Good Friday Agreement anniversary gala diner at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday (Alamy)
There is a growing feeling on both sides of the Irish Sea that an unavoidable moment of truth is fast approaching the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the party appears to be running out of road in its ongoing boycott of Northern Ireland's political institutions.
The DUP's leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, insisted this week his party would not be "brow beaten" into returning to Stormont after they collapsed power sharing in the region early last year in protest against post-Brexit arrangements for the region negotiated by the UK and European Union.
Stormont has remained out of action ever since, with the DUP currently arguing that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Windsor framework recently negotiated for the region does not go far enough to address their concerns about Northern Ireland's place in the union, despite the deal broadly winning plaudits for the PM.
However, there is a dawning realisation within the party that they have no other option but to soon resume powersharing, with senior party figures privately considering routes back to Stormont following the region's local elections on 18 May, as PoliticsHome reported on Tuesday.
A party source said the topic was "the only show in town".
Those who know Donaldson well describe the MP for Lagan Valley as a "people pleaser" who "likes to be liked" and tries hard to avoid internal conflict. He may have already taken his party back into power sharing had it not been so hard to manage, with the "awkward squad" of DUP MPs like Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr pushing particularly hard lines on Brexit, according to Jon Tonge, professor of British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool.
It is Donaldson's desire to avoid confrontation that leads some in the UK and EU to fear that he will continue to delay a decision, neither outright rejecting the Windsor deal for Northern Ireland nor declaring that the government has done enough for his party to return to Stormont. In the meantime the DUP becomes increasingly difficult to control.
"When the bar closes you need someone to point everyone towards the taxi and get in it, otherwise they'll just start fighting outside the chippy," one diplomatic source said.
Donaldson almost certainly won't return the DUP to power sharing before next month's local elections – which were delayed by two weeks to avoid clashing with the coronoation of King Charles – as the party is fearful of bleeding support to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), which has vehemently rejected the Windsor framework. The two realistic windows for a return to Stormont are now seen as the weeks either side of Northern Ireland's Summer marching season: June and early Autumn.
Doug Beattie, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said on Thursday it was a matter of when, not if, Northern Ireland's political institutions would get back up and running, and predicted that the DUP will have returned to Stormont by the Autumn.
"There's nothing else we can do," he told the BBC's The Nolan Show.
"We are in the middle of an election so nothing is going to happen now, or afterwards in the marching season, but I would imagine that by the Autumn we will definitely have an executive running again," he explained.
The DUP stresses it will not return to power sharing until the government takes further steps to guarantee Northern Ireland's place in the UK, arguing that the Windsor deal falls short of addressing its concerns.
"We have honoured our commitments," Dean McCullough, the DUP councillor for the Belfast district of Castle, told PoliticsHome.
"We were promised that these outstanding issues would be resolved, and they have not been resolved. It's not the DUP that hasn't lived up to its commitments and the promises it made, it is the government in Westminster."
Speaking after the conclusion of this week's Good Friday Agreement conference at Queen's University, Donaldson said "we must get the foundations right" for the DUP to return.
“We seek to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly by finishing the job of fully restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Short-term fixes will lead to short-term devolution and will do a disservice to those trying to make the institutions work," he said.
Tonge believed that the DUP needs a "pretext" to return to Stormont, which the party is currently lacking.
"The party needs an excuse or it’ll look embarrassing," he explained. "It needs political cover to return and that’s where the UK government can help through legislation.”
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton Harris has said ministers will bring forward "reassurances in law" to further solidify the region's place in the UK, and this week the government published memos explaining elements of the Windsor deal with Brussels. The DUP is still in talks with government about what those legal reassurances will look like.
"The Windsor Framework provides constitutional and democratic guarantees for the people of Northern Ireland," a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office told PoliticsHome.
"This has been demonstrated by the delivery of legislation on the Stormont Brake, as part of Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides an important democratic safeguard."
The absence of a government in Northern Ireland loomed large within the red brick walls of Queen's University this week where a dizzingly high-profile cast of senior politicians, including those who played key roles in striking the 1998 Good Friday Agreement assembled to mark its 25th anniversary.
Former US president Bill Clinton, in power at the time the peace deal was agreed was in Belfast alongside two of its key architects – former UK prime minister Tony Blair and Ireland's former taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Current leaders including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel also jetted in to deliver keynote speeches on Wednesday.
Ahern pleaded with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to take his party back into power-sharing, while Blair said they "should just get on" and do what they know in their "heart of hearts is the right thing".
Sunak himself warned that a failing Stormont would hurt the unionist cause, not boost it.
Despite the shadow of deadlock, however, the mood of the three-day conference was optimistic and celebratory, culminating in a dinner hosted by Sunak at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday evening, and attended by an even longer list of recognisable political figures from the UK, Ireland and beyond.
Boris Johnson's attendance at the event irritated guests who say the former PM's approach to Brexit contributed to Northern Ireland's instability, while organisers made sure Liz Truss and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič were sat apart, following tense relations when she led the UK Brexit negotiations. Truss's Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in particular provoked the fury of Brussels, and caused post-Brexit relations between the UK and European Union to crash to a low point.
The trio of Johnson, Truss and Šefčovič are central characters in the long, painful story of the DUP and Brexit, which saw the party collapse Stormont almost 15 months ago. But the end of this particular chapter, of Northern Ireland without a government, is becoming increasingly visible.
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