The leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest Unionist party has toppled the power-sharing executive in a row over post-Brexit trade rules. But his bet, three months before the elections, will be difficult to hold.
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 revise post-Brexit trade deals for the region would be “short, sharp” and would only take three weeks, he claims.
Four months into that engagement, with no breakthrough in sight, Donaldson decided it was time to apply “maximum leverage” to London and Brussels. As he had been threatening him since September, he unplugged the DUP-led Stormont government.
But analysts said the move, which automatically triggered the exit of the deputy premier of the nationalist Sinn Féin party, had as much to do with politics as it did with the removal of customs checks imposed on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain since Brexit.
It could backfire, they say. “It’s a huge, huge gamble,” said Sarah Creighton, a trade union commentator. “He backed into a corner.”
While polls show a majority of Unionist voters oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol – the post-Brexit deal that left Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods but has put a customs border in the Irish Sea to prevent the return of a politically sensitive hard border to the island of Ireland – Donaldson’s ability to get it scrapped seems limited. He said he would not return to government unless it was fixed to his satisfaction.
Brussels has made it clear that the Brexit deal is enshrined in international law and, while it is willing to be flexible and reduce controls as much as possible, it expects London to implement the agreement he signed.
Moreover, as one former senior civil servant noted: “The collapse of the executive does not guarantee it success in elections. He could well lose as many supporters as he wins with this stunt.
Donaldson torpedoed the Stormont executive three months before a scheduled election and Sinn Féin, which polls show are well ahead of the DUP and on course to win, demanded an early vote – something to be decided by London.
Donaldson says the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK. But 34% of respondents in a survey by Northern Irish pollster Lucid Talk last month backed the protocol, albeit with some tweaks. That was nearly on par with the 36% who opposed it in principle and wanted it removed.
As voters grow increasingly fed up with their leaders, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s outgoing deputy first minister, has sought to blame the DUP for her departure legislative affairsincluding on education and climate change, in limbo following the collapse of the executive.
Many voters want action on issues more pressing for them: Northern Ireland already has the longest waiting lists for health services in the UK and funding plans have been upended by the political crisis, as a three-year budget may not be approved.
Covid-19 restrictions, which were due to be scrapped at an executive meeting next week, also remain up in the air.
Donaldson’s hardball tactic is seen as an attempt to lure hardline trade unionists away from the Traditional Unionist Voice party which briefly overtook the DUP in the polls last year.
According to last month’s Lucid Talk poll, 90% of TUV supporters favored an immediate removal of the DUP from the Stormont executive.
But the DUP is also fighting to prevent its supporters from defecting to the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, of which only 11% of voters wanted Stormont to crash immediately. Lucid Talk found that 70% of respondents overall rated Donaldson’s performance as bad or horrible, more than double UUP leader Doug Beattie’s score of 31%.
That poll, however, did not take into account a scandal over offensive language used by Beattie in a series of old tweets, which briefly threatened his leadership and could undermine a recent “Beattie bounce” in favor.
Colin Coulter, a professor at Maynooth University, said the DUP was seeking to remain the largest unionist party, but noted a growing number of disillusioned young voters. “The real story of unionism is the people who don’t vote,” he said.
The DUP also appeared “impotent”, he said, after officials ignored his agriculture minister’s order last week to suspend customs checks on agricultural products and food entering Northern Ireland. Belfast High Court stayed the order for a month pending a full judicial review.
Donaldson’s decision kicks off an election that was not scheduled until May 5. But he declined to say whether his party, which is already embroiled in infighting over candidate selection, will serve alongside Sinn Féin if the DUP comes second, even though the roles of first and deputy first minister are up for grabs. legally equal.
This could lead to devolution collapsing and Northern Ireland being governed at least temporarily from Westminster – which could end up playing into the hands of Sinn Féin, whose political goal is a united Ireland.
“Anything that makes Northern Ireland look like a failure is good for Sinn Féin,” said the former official. “If Jeffrey Donaldson doesn’t come to power with them, that’s fine with them – they can play the victim.”