DUP Is Planning Next Moves On Power Sharing After Northern Ireland Elections
Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is set to move forward plans on restoring power sharing in Stormont following last week's local elections, offering a potential breakthrough on the deadlock that has stalled the devolved administration for over a year.
While the DUP came second behind nationalists Sinn Fein on Thursday, party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has actually emerged in a strengthened position. By successfully seeing off challengers from elsewhere in the unionist movement, the sharpest thorns in his side when it comes to sticking points on power sharing have been diminished.
The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), which for months has put intense public pressure on the DUP to take a harder line on post-Brexit arrangements for the region, saw its share of the vote nearly halved compared with last year's Assembly elections. Meanwhile, the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) also saw its vote fall, albeit by a smaller margin.
DUP insiders say the result is a vindication of Donaldson’s strategy of refusing to return to power sharing until he has secured more concessions from the UK government, rather than simply accepting the Windsor framework as negotiated by the UK and EU, and puts him on firmer ground to take the next steps in preparing to take the party back into government.
There is also a DUP acknowledgement that while its own vote held up well at last week's local elections, the wider unionist vote is being outperformed by support for Northern Ireland's nationalist parties. Figures within the party say that ultimately, unionism will have a better chance of appealing to new voters in the future by returning to power sharing.
The DUP walked out of power sharing early last year in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which it said was unacceptable because it undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK. The protocol, agreed in Brexit divorce talks, was designed to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland, but did so by inserting a trade border in the Irish Sea.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak secured a new post-Brexit treaty for Northern Ireland to replace the contentious protocol, which he said addressed DUP concerns about trade with Great Britain. The Windsor Framework comfortably passed through parliament and is now being implemented by the UK government and European Union. It did not convince the DUP to return to power sharing, however, with Donaldson declaring that while Windsor deal was a significant improvement on the previous protocol, it did not go far enough.
But with his position bolstered, Donaldson is preparing to negotiate a package with the UK government that he will say is enough to justify taking his party back into power.
There will be two core elements to this potential package, PoliticsHome understands.
The first will be a legislative amendment brought forward by the UK government, expected before parliament takes an extended summer break in July, to provide further guarantees regarding Northern Ireland's place in the UK when it comes to trade. Specifically, it is expected to guarantee that goods produced in Northern Ireland will always move freely within the UK, even if they conform with EU rather than British standards.
The second will be increased Westminster funding for the region, with DUP figures having already started to publicly demand more cash. Gavin Robinson, the DUP MP for Belfast East, last week told the BBC: “If we see — and we want to see — a return to devolution, it is going to have to be matched with a fundamental recalibration of how Northern Ireland is funded."
The UK government is well aware of these demands, having spent weeks in private discussions with the DUP about how to get power sharing back and up and running.
PoliticsHome reported last month that senior DUP figures had already initiated internal discussions about a route back into power sharing later in the year, with a late Summer or early Autumn return regarded as the most likely window.
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