DUP Is Finally Ready To Decide Whether To Return To Power Sharing
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Alamy)
After many months of painstaking negotiations, flash points and false dawns, Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has finally indicated the party is ready to reach a decision on whether to restore power-sharing.
Early on Friday morning, Donaldson caught virtually everyone by surprise, including those in his own ranks, when he called a meeting of the party's twelve senior officers. A source close to talks described them to PoliticsHome as a "deal or no deal" situation. Crunch time.
Even as late as Thursday, hopes on both sides of the Irish Sea that the region's largest unionist party would soon agree to return to power-sharing seemed to have hit a new low.
Shortly before Donaldson summoned key DUP figures, David Sterling, the former head of the Northern Irish civil service, posted on X, the website formerly known as Twitter, that he feared the power-sharing institutions would never sit again.
Standing outside Northern Ireland's seat of power, Stormont, which has been out of action for nearly two years, Sterling wrote: "Despite the bright sunshine, there’s a sad end of days feel in the air. Can’t help thinking if the Assembly has met for the last time, it will be Unionists who come to regret it the most."
Julian Smith, the former Northern Ireland secretary who remains an influential figure when it comes to Rishi Sunak's approach to Northern Ireland, struck a slightly more upbeat tone in response: "Sometimes it's darkest before the dawn," he replied. Was he right?
The DUP is faced with the existential question of whether to accept the UK government's offer of alterations to post-Brexit trading arrangements, thrashed out over months of talks with officials in Westminster, plus £3.3bn for a restored Stormont to spend on relaunching power sharing.
The stakes could not be higher, and there is a belief among DUP figures that if the party officers do not back Donaldson's push to return to power sharing, then he may be forced to resign. "It was probably always destined to require an almost ‘back me or sack me’ moment," said one source familiar with the discussions.
The party is expected to wait until the beginning of next week before announcing its verdict.
On Friday night a party spokesperson sought to play down the significance of the meeting that day. "We understand that there has considerable interest in our meeting today. We will not give a running commentary on our position, save to say, we will continue to engage with the government," they said. The statement did not refer to negotiations with the UK ministers, only engagement. The Sunak government has told Donaldson that negotiations over post-Brexit trading arrangements are over.
The DUP leader's hardest task will be persuading the party's more hardline voices such as MPs Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley to get on board with accepting the deal to return to Stormont.
"There will be a feeling that they’re being bullied and bounced into a return, and that there’s been no improvement to the deal that was rejected pre-Christmas," the source said.
The DUP's Members of Northern Ireland's Legislative Assembly, on the other hand, have generally been more receptive to calls for the party to get the institutions back up-and-running, partly because their salaries have been reduced by the Northern Ireland Office as a result of the boycott.
Keeping the party together has been at the forefront of Donaldson's mind throughout this process. Critics of his approach say it has played too big a part in his thinking and has resulted in him delaying the big decision.
Failure by Donaldson to take his party with him would also raise questions about the future of Northern Ireland. Sterling, its former chief civil servant, has not been alone in his concern that the power sharing institutions may never sit again. This UK government has been reluctant to even consider a return to direct rule.
If DUP officers give Donaldson the green light, however, then things could move very quickly. PoliticsHome understands the UK government would be prepared to implement its deal with the DUP and the necessary legislation to facilitate Stormont's return as soon as next week, paving the way for the Assembly to potentially sit as early as Wednesday.
Speaking in Belfast just before Christmas, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris said: "We stand ready to introduce a package of measures that have been worked on together should the DUP reach a decision to proceed."
The DUP, the second largest party in Northern Ireland behind nationalists Sinn Fein, collapsed the region's power-sharing government early last year out of protest against post-Brexit arrangements for trade with Great Britain across the Irish Sea. According to the DUP, these arrangements had fundamentally undermined Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.
In February, Sunak and the European Union agreed a new deal for the region called the Windsor Framework, replacing the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, a treaty negotiated by former prime minister Boris Johnson. The DUP said the Windsor Framework was an improvement but did not go far enough to address its concerns, and since then Donaldson has been in talks with the government about resolving these remaining issues.
During that time, the DUP has been under extreme pressure from other political parties in Northern Ireland to end its boycott as the region, like the rest of the UK, faces challenges such as the ongoing cost of living crisis.
The pressure has ratcheted up this week with nearly 150,000 workers represented by six unions, including nurses, teachers, bus drivers and civil servants taking part in 24 hours of industrial action on Thursday.
The strikes, the biggest in Northern Ireland's living memory, amounted to around 80 per cent of the region's public sector walking out over pay. Schools were closed while the region's department of infrastructure urged people to avoid travelling as there would be limited gritting of wintery roads.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Heaton Harris has been on the receiving end of public anger, too. While the government has set aside £584 million for public sector pay rises, it is refusing to release the cash until the DUP agrees to return to Stormont.
But for Donaldson, there are also electoral ramifications to consider.
While the length of the DUP boycott has outraged other parties in Northern Ireland and led to exasperation in Westminster, opinion polls have consistently found significant levels of support for the strategy among DUP voters. Because of this, a move to rejoin Stormont in the coming days would inevitably prompt cries of betrayal from more hardline figures in the unionist movement, and create the risk of the DUP shedding votes to the Traditional Unionist Voice.
Whatever Donaldson decides, the next few days will be highly consequential not just for him but the future of Northern Ireland.
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