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Summer Of "Drift" Casts Doubt Over A DUP Return To Stormont

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP)

5 min read

Westminster is gearing up for the return of parliament in just over a week, but the same cannot be said for the government in Northern Ireland, where the Democratic Unionist Party's ongoing protest is causing growing frustration in Downing Street.

The DUP, led by MP for Lagan Valley Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, walked out of the devolved government at Stormont in early 2022 in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed by the UK and European Union as a way of managing post-Brexit trade across the Irish Sea while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. Stormont, where powers are shared by the region's largest unionist and nationalist parties, has been unable to sit since.

While there was a hope that Donaldson would bring his party back into power-sharing this Autumn to end the DUP's year-and-a-half boycott of Northern Ireland's political institutions, there is now a growing pessimism that this will happen after months of "drift" in which the UK government and the unionist party have failed to reach an agreement on terms of a return.

The DUP's performance in the Northern Ireland's local elections in May, which saw the party fend off both the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), was seen by insiders as a vindication of its strategy, as well as putting Donaldson in a stronger position to take the major step of returning to government.

The election of his close ally Gavin Robinson, the DUP MP for Belfast East, as deputy leader was also seen as a significant boost to Donaldson's authority which would put him in a firmer position with members of his party who are most opposed to returning to Stormont.

But as the summer draws to a close, Donaldson seems no closer to taking this major decision than he did several months ago, with the DUP and the Sunak government still in talks over how the former's concerns with post-Brexit arrangements for the region can be assuaged.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen celebrated the successful UK-EU negotiation of a new treaty, the Windsor Framework, which they said had addressed DUP concerns about Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

For Donaldson, the Windsor deal is an improvement on the original Northern Ireland Protocol, but is still not sufficient, and the DUP has sent the UK government an 18-page document spelling out the problems that it argues remain.

The impasse is causing growing frustration within the UK government, and there have been preliminary discussions about what steps it can take to address the lack of governance in Northern Ireland if the DUP doesn't change its stance soon, PoliticsHome understands.

“We have given them [the DUP] everything they wanted and they have not shown any willingness to even think about coming back," one Whitehall source told PoliticsHome.

"There are urgent decisions racking up in Northern Ireland that nothing can be done about, there are over 100 businesses coming over for next month's investment summit looking for stability, and the framework is being implemented without them.

"It’s getting to the point where it looks like they just don’t want to govern."

Steve Baker, a minister in the Northern Ireland Office, made his exasperation clear in an interview this week, prompting the DUP MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland) Emma-Little Pengelly to suggest that the UK government should put the Brexit-backing Conservative MP back in his "box".

"Of course it's frustrating, we're all frustrated," Baker told Cool FM.

"Sir Jeffrey has got my sympathy. He has got a very hard problem to deal with."

Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker (Alamy)

Baker singled out DUP figures with the "hardest lines of opinion" who he said were unlikely to accept anything brought forward by the UK government in a bid to break the deadlock in Belfast.

"One of the things I have said, and I may regret saying this, is one of things I've noticed is some of the people opposed to the Windsor Framework were also opposed to Belfast-Good Friday Agreement, and to some of them it's going to be very difficult to sell anything," he continued. 

"Of course we will work with the DUP and try to give them everything we can. I hope everyone will be practical and realistic about what's possible."

DUP MPs Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr, plus peer Nigel Dodds, are seen as the biggest obstacles to an agreement to return to Stormont, while the party's MLAs are generally more supportive of their leader pursuing a route back to power-sharing. 

Critics of Donaldson's approach say he has been too concerned with keeping the aforementioned trio onside, and fear that he may never take the bold decision to return to Stormont as long as he is focused on trying to avoid conflict within the DUP. 

"[Donaldson] has really good garden party manners. He is civil, courteous," one MLA said. "He wants to do a deal, but that's very far from being able to do a deal."

But backers of Donaldson's approach stress that talks between the DUP leadership and UK government are ongoing at a high level and if successful, will produce a better outcome for concerned unionists. Chris Heaton Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said earlier this month that talks with the DUP would "continue over the summer".

The DUP is calling on the Prime Minister to take action in legislation that will further protect Northern Ireland's place in the Union, and the party is also pushing for an enlarged funding package for the region – perhaps through a Treasury review of the Barnett Formula, which is used to calculate funds allocated to devolved nations. 

DUP sources say their annual conference in mid-October, which gets underway on Friday the 13th, could be significant as Donaldson may use it to "prepare the base" for a return package agreement with the UK government involving some degree of compromise. 

Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Kyle, told PoliticsHome he felt Sunak must show more urgency in trying to get Stormont back up-and-running. 

“After years of Tory neglect, it’s time the Prime Minister pulled his finger out and made Northern Ireland a priority," he said. "The Labour party will always be an honest broker for Northern Ireland and work tirelessly to find the stability necessary for a bright shared future for all.”

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