Despite Northern Ireland poll results, is DUP calling the tune for the Johnson government?

Stormont near Belfast has accommodated Northern Ireland’s parliament since 1932. “Stormont” by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The results of the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly, held on 5 May, 2022 were hailed as a historic win for Sinn Fein, the Irish Nationalist party, which for the first time gained the largest number of seats at Stormont.  Under the power-sharing arrangement set up by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (B/GFA) in 1998, the First and Deputy First Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive represent the two largest parties in the Assembly, in this case Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which previously held the First Minister post. 

However, the DUP have refused to nominate a representative for the Deputy First Minister position, or to support the election of a new Speaker in the Assembly, thereby blocking the formation of a devolved government.  The party has stated there will be no return to Stormont until their issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol (a part of the post Brexit trade deal) are resolved.

DUP Power and Influence

The UK Prime Minister stands accused by the Nationalists of “placating” the DUP, who are preventing Sinn Fein from convening a Northern Ireland Executive.  Despite coming second in the NI Assembly elections, the DUP arguably have more leverage on the UK government today than they did when their former leader Arlene Foster formed a coalition government with Theresa May, in 2017.

The hard Brexit chosen by the Johnson government necessitated the drafting of the Northern Ireland Protocol.  It meant there would be customs checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea, to enable Northern Ireland to remain in the EU single market and customs union, thereby avoiding a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland.  A recent report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed that the NI economy was outperforming that of the rest of the UK, because of its advantageous access to EU markets.

The election results reflect the complex changes within public opinion in Northern Ireland since the Brexit vote of 2016 (when it voted 54 per cent to remain).  A joint study by Queen’s University Belfast and The University of Ulster, ‘The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2021‘,presented recently at ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ think tank, showed a number of interesting trends.  Perhaps surprisingly, for those who think of Northern Ireland as divided into two communities in terms of political identity, the largest group (38 per cent) self-identified as “neither Nationalist nor Unionist”.  Furthermore, as regards national identity, the biggest group, up 7 per cent on the previous year, was “exclusively Irish” (28 per cent), as opposed to those who identified as “exclusively British” (21 per cent).  These trends may go some way to explaining why, in the recent elections, Sinn Fein did so well. 33 per cent of those polled thought the Protocol was a ‘good thing’, with the same number thinking it was a ‘mixed bag’.  Overall, 21 per cent thought it was a bad thing, but this number rose to 44 per cent amongst Unionists.

Another Assembly election in six to eight months?

Under the terms of the power-sharing system, if no government has been formed after twenty-four weeks, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis MP will be required to call a snap election within twelve weeks.  This means that at the latest, there could be another election by mid-January 2023, which is presumably what the DUP are gambling on.  Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, has also won election to Stormont as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA).  To take up the MLA seat he would have to resign from Westminster, triggering a by-election, but he will not leave Westminster until his party’s concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol are addressed, and there is no guarantee that the government’s proposals will succeed in bringing the DUP back into power-sharing as things stand.

In the meantime, the UK government is preparing to table a Bill to unilaterally ‘disapply’ certain parts of the NI protocol if it fails to reach agreements with the EU on amendments.  As part of the Trade and Cooperation (TCA) Agreement which Johnson signed at the end of 2020, the Protocol was ratified by the national parliaments of the EU’s 27 countries (including the Republic of Ireland) which are highly unlikely to give the European Commission any mandate for renegotiation.   

For the UK to take unilateral action would be a breach of international law and from the EU’s point of view, would threaten the basis of their single market of 450 million consumers.  This could force the re-creation of a ‘hard’ border across the island of Ireland, with potentially serious consequences for peace and stability.  It would also lead to a breakdown of the UK’s already strained trading relationship with the EU, which could mean the return of a ‘no deal’ trade war scenario.

At a House of Lords Sub-Committee meeting on 26 May, James Cleverly MP, the Europe Minister, stated that the government’s preference was for “amendments” to the Protocol.  He confirmed that channels remained open through the Joint Committee established under the Withdrawal Agreement, to allow further discussions with the EU, in parallel with the planned Bill’s progress through parliament, although none appeared to have been scheduled.  The UK government, nevertheless, seems incapable of realising that cooperation, not confrontation between the UK and the EU, is the key to making the Protocol work.  As part of Johnson’s ‘reset’ after his pyrrhic victory in the recent leadership election, he is set to bring forward draft legislation to override parts of the Protocol in an attempt to put pressure on the EU to accept its demands.

The EU, while not willing to renegotiate the Protocol, proposes to transform their package of solutions into agreed legal text.  Progress made last year in relation to the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland was an example of such flexibility and the idea of ‘red’ and ‘green’ channels to differentiate goods bound only for Northern Ireland has been suggested.

EU not impressed

In the view of some EU diplomats, the fact that the UK government is choosing to introduce legislation unilaterally to ‘disapply’ parts of an international treaty with European partners made just two and a half years ago, at a time of war in Ukraine, has demonstrated how Brexit Britain cannot be trusted on the international stage.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland, which, since devolution at Stormont in its present form began 22 years ago, has been without a functioning government for 35 per cent of its lifespan, embarks on a further period of direct rule from Westminster and the accompanying drift and uncertainty.

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