The leader of the largest union party in Northern Ireland has ousted the executive to share power over post-Brexit trade rules. But his gambit, three months before the election, will be difficult to implement.
Shortly after taking over the reins of the Democratic Unionist Party last year, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson met with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at a Conservative Party conference. Boris Johnson told him then that negotiations with the EU to review trade agreements for the region after Brexit would be “short, sharp” and would take only three weeks, he said.
Four months after that promise, with no breakthrough, Donaldson decided it was time to apply “maximum leverage” to London and Brussels. As he had been threatened since September, he pulled the plug on the Stormont-led Stormont government.
However, analysts said the move, which automatically sparked the departure of Nationalist Party Deputy Prime Minister Sinn Fein, has more to do with politics than it does with the abolition of customs controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain after Brexit.
This could have the opposite effect, they say. “It’s a huge, huge gamble,” said Sarah Creighton, a union commentator. “He’s huddled in a corner.”
While polls show that a majority of union voters oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol, the post-Brexit agreement that left Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market but set a customs border in the Irish Sea to prevent the return of political a sensitive hard line on the island of Ireland – Donaldson’s ability to scrap it seems limited. He said he would not return to the government unless it was determined to satisfy him.
Brussels has made it clear that the Brexit deal is enshrined in international law, and while it is ready to be flexible and reduce checks as much as possible, it expects London to fulfill the deal it signed.
In addition, as one former high-ranking official noted: “The collapse of the executive branch does not guarantee his success in the elections. He can lose as many supporters as he gains with this trick. “
Donaldson torpedoed Stormont’s executive three months before the scheduled election, and Sinn Fein, who polls show is well ahead of the DUP and on track to win, has called for early voting – something to be decided by London.
Donaldson says the protocol undermines the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. But 34% of respondents to the Lucid Talk poll in Northern Ireland last month backed the protocol, albeit with some adjustments. This was practically equal to the 36 percent who opposed in principle and wanted it removed.
As voters became increasingly fed up with their leaders, Michelle O’Neill, the outgoing Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister, tried to blame the DUP for leaving. legislative businessincluding on education and climate change, unknown as a result of the collapse of the executive.
Many voters want action on more pressing issues for them: Northern Ireland already has the longest waiting lists for health services in the UK and funding plans have been thrown into chaos by the political crisis as the three-year budget may not be able to be approved now.
Restrictions on Covid-19, which are due to be lifted at a meeting of the executive next week, also remain in the air.
Donaldson’s tough tactics are seen as an attempt to lure union hardliners away from the Traditional Unionist Voice party, which briefly overtook the DUP in last year’s polls.
According to a Lucid Talk poll last month, 90% of TUV supporters support the immediate withdrawal of the DUP from Stormont’s executive branch.
But the DUP is also struggling to prevent its supporters from moving to Ulster’s more moderate unionist party, with only 11 percent of voters want Stormont to break up immediately. Lucid Talk found that 70 percent of respondents generally rated Donaldson’s performance bad or terrible, more than twice the 31 percent score of UUP leader Doug Beatty.
However, this poll did not take into account the abusive language scandal used by Beatty in a series of old tweets that briefly threatened his leadership and could undermine Beattie’s recent “bounce” in support.
Colin Coulter, a professor at the University of Maine, said the DUP was looking to remain the largest union party, but noted a growing number of frustrated young voters. “The real history of trade unionism is the people who do not vote,” he said.
The DUP also seems “powerless”, he said, after officials disobeyed an order from the agriculture minister last week to suspend customs controls on agricultural and food products entering Northern Ireland. The Belfast High Court has suspended the order for a month pending a full judicial review.
Donaldson’s move marks the beginning of early elections, which should not have been expected until May 5. But he declined to say whether his party, which is already embroiled in internal disputes over candidate selection, would serve alongside Sinn Fein if the DUP came in second, even though the roles of first and deputy first ministers are legally equal.
This could lead to the collapse of the transfer of power and Northern Ireland being ruled, at least temporarily, by Westminster, something that could eventually play 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, it’s convenient for them – they can play victim.