The leader of Northern Ireland’s largest trade union party has withdrawn the power-sharing executive in a row over post-Brexit trade rules. But his game, three months before the election, will be difficult to deliver.
Shortly after taking the reins of the Democratic Unionist Party last year, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson met the British Prime Minister at the Conservative Party conference. Boris Johnson then told him that negotiations with the EU to review post-Brexit trade arrangements for the region would be “short, sharp” and would only take three weeks, he claimed.
Four months after that promise, with no breakthrough in sight, Donaldson decided it was time to apply “maximum leverage” to London and Brussels. As he has been threatening since September, he unplugged on the Stormont government, led by the DUP.
But analysts said the move, which automatically caused the resignation of the nationalist Sinn Féin party’s deputy prime minister, had as much to do with politics as getting rid of customs controls that have been in place since Brexit on goods belonging to Northern Ireland entered from Britain, was instituted.
It could backfire, they say. “It’s a big, big gamble,” said Sarah Creighton, a union commentator. “He stabbed himself in a corner.”
While polls show a majority of union voters oppose the Northern Ireland protocol – the post-Brexit agreement that left Northern Ireland within the EU’s internal market for goods but placed a customs border in the Irish Sea to the return of a politically sensitive hard border on the island of Ireland – Donaldson’s ability to get it scrapped seems limited. He said he would not return to the government unless it was rectified to his satisfaction.
Brussels has made it clear that the Brexit agreement is enshrined in international law and while it is willing to be flexible and to reduce checks as much as possible, he expects London to implement the agreement to which it was signed.
Furthermore, as one former senior official remarked: “The collapse of the executive does not guarantee him success in the elections. He could very well lose as many fans as he gains with this stunt. “
Donaldson torpedoed Stormont management three months before scheduled elections and Sinn Féin, who according to opinion polls are far ahead of the DUP and on course to win, demanded an early vote – something London will decide on.
Donaldson says the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK. But 34 per cent of respondents in a poll by Northern Ireland pollster Speak clearly last month supported the protocol, albeit with a few tweaks. It was virtually equal to the 36 percent who opposed it in principle and wanted to delete it.
With voters increasingly fed up with their leaders, outgoing Michelle O’Neill, the outgoing Sinn Féin deputy prime minister, tried to blame the DUP for leaving legislative businessincluding on education and climate change, in limbo as a result of the collapse of the executive branch.
Many voters want action on more pressing concerns for them: Northern Ireland already has the UK’s longest waiting lists for health services and funding plans have been thrown into disarray by the political crisis as a three-year budget may not be approved now.
Covid-19 restrictions, which were to be removed during an executive meeting next week, also remain in the air.
Donaldson’s hardball tactics are seen as an attempt to lure hardened union members away from the Traditional Unionist Voice party that briefly overtook the DUP last year in polls.
According to the Lucid Talk poll last month, 90 percent of TUV supporters preferred an immediate DUP withdrawal from Stormont management.
But the DUP is also fighting to stop its supporters from moving to the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, of which only 11 percent of whose voters wanted Stormont immediately collapsed. Lucid Talk found 70 percent of respondents rated Donaldson’s performance generally bad or awful, more than double UUP leader Doug Beattie’s 31 percent score.
However, that poll did not take into account a scandal over offensive language by Beattie in a series of old tweets, which briefly threatened his leadership and could undermine a recent “Beattie refusal” in support.
Colin Coulter, a professor at Maynooth University, said the DUP looked on course to remain the largest trade union party, but noted increasing numbers of disillusioned young voters. “The true story of trade unionism is the people who do not vote,” he said.
The DUP also looked “impotent”, he said, after officials did not heed his agriculture minister’s order last week to suspend customs controls on agricultural and food goods entering Northern Ireland. The Belfast High Court has suspended the order for a month pending a full judicial review.
Donaldson’s move shoots early in the election, which only took place on May 5th. But he declined to say whether his party, which is already embroiled in internal queues over candidate choices, would serve with Sinn Féin as the DUP comes second, even if the roles of first and deputy prime ministers are legally equal.
This could lead to the collapse of devolution and Northern Ireland being ruled at least temporarily from Westminster – something that could eventually play into the hands of Sinn Féin, whose policy objective is a united Ireland.
“Anything that makes Northern Ireland look like a failure is good for Sinn Féin,” the former official said. “If Jeffrey Donaldson does not go to power with them, it suits them – they can play the victim.”