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Renewed Hope For Northern Ireland Government Return After May Elections

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

3 min read

Government is hopeful that Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will return to power sharing at Stormont after the region has held local elections in May.

Senior Westminster government sources told PoliticsHome they expected the DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, to continue its boycott of Stormont until the end of May at the earliest, with summer seen as the likely window for the political institutions to be restored.

Northern Ireland will hold local elections on 18 May, two weeks after the rest of the UK, having decided to postpone polling day to avoid overlapping with the coronation of King Charles.

There is a feeling within government that the DUP does not want to go into those elections having agreed to return to Stormont, as it believes it would risk bleeding support to hardline unionist party Tradtitional Unionist Voice (TUV).

The DUP walked out of Belfast's devolved power-sharing government early last year in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. The treaty 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.

Last month, the UK and European Union signed a revised version of the treaty called the Windsor framework. While the deal was rejected by the DUP, it comfortably passed a House of Commons vote on Wednesday and was formally adopted by the UK and EU at a meeting between Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission Vice President Marcos Sefcovic on Friday.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, former PMs Boris Johnson and Liz Truss announced they would oppose the legislation prompting speculation Tory MPs might follow their leads and leave Sunak faced with an awkward backbench rebellion. 

In the end, however, just 22 Conservative MPs defied the government, handing the Prime Minister a significant victory over the remaining Brexit hardliners in his party. 

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

A key part of the deal struck in Windsor is a mechanism called the 'Stormont Brake' – which gives members of Northern Ireland's legislative assembly (MLAs) the ability to stop new EU laws being applied in the region. 

The DUP argues it is flawed because in exceptional circumstances the UK government can green light the application of an EU law, even if MLAs have triggered the Stormont Brake to stop it.

Chris Heaton Harris, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has told the DUP that the UK government will provide futher "constitutional guarantees" in a bid to address the party's concerns about the region's place in the UK under the Windsor framework.

Speaking on Thursday, however, he warned that the government would not renegotiate the deal.

"There is no renegotiation of that deal. We are now going to put our best efforts into making that deal work," Heaton Harris told reporters. He added that the DUP had "not yet to come to terms with the significance of the parliamentary vote" on Wednesday.

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