On Northern Ireland’s Revival
Amidst the many failures of Brexit, the sheer depth of the self-harm of the DUP’s particular tilt at the windmill stands out. Just weeks before the 2016 referendum, Arlene Foster emerged from Northern Ireland Assembly elections as the apparent mistress of all she surveyed. The DUP was the largest party by a wide margin, Sinn Fein’s vote was down by 3% and the hard-right of Unionism had been restricted to a lone Assembly member.
Even after the Assembly collapsed in 2017, the DUP gained unexpected leverage at Westminster, holding the balance of power in a custom-and-supply arrangement with the Conservatives just as the terms of Brexit were being negotiated. Yet despite Teresa May’s efforts at olive branches, DUP MPs increasingly aligned with the Brexit-diehards in the European Research Group, pinning their hopes on the promises of one Boris Johnson.
On the very day Johnson secured his allegedly ‘oven-ready’ deal, it was clear that the DUP was the turkey. Once the Covid clouds cleared, Northern Ireland emerged with a border in the Irish Sea, Unionists had lost their natural majority, the anti-Brexit Alliance Party had emerged as a credible third political force and Sinn Fein were well on their way to becoming the largest party in a place expressly created as a fortress against Republicanism. While the DUP went through two leaders in a month, the visible leadership of the anti-Protocol movement was devolved to agitators outside the DUP. Erstwhile partners in Northern Ireland and supposed allies in the Conservative Party evaporated. Unionism was reduced to exercising a veto on Northern Ireland itself as public services crumbled, and pay rises went unpaid in a cost-of-living crisis.
In 2023, a newly-sobered UK government under Rishi Sunak was suddenly anxious to put the residual wrangling with the EU to bed. Once again, Unionist interests in Northern Ireland were not allowed to stand in the way of English interests. While the EU was unbending in its insistence that the Single Market should be protected, they indicated that the practical details of implementation and special measures were negotiable. The result was the Windsor Framework, a Protocol 2.0 largely negotiated with business and academics in Northern Ireland, that focussed on reducing the practical obstacles to free-flowing movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland while protecting the rules of Single Market.
Despite their political isolation in Northern Ireland, Westminster and the diplomatic world, the DUP continued to hold out. Hard line opposition to any compromise on the Protocol was vocal, organised, and prepared. The political stakes for the DUP, and for Jeffrey Donaldson as leader, had not reduced.
Although Donaldson had concluded that no further concessions could be won, there were therefore several false starts, not least just before Christmas when the Grand Old Duke of York seemed to have reached the top of the Hill only to march back down again. Outside anti-Protocol Unionism, patience was running thin. Not only was the British government unwilling to negotiate, but a general public sector strike in January indicated that the days of passive acceptance of delayed pay rises were over.
Like bankruptcy, change was first gradual, and then sudden. After DUP party officers accepted the deal behind closed doors, the UK government moved fast to put soothing words in place to smooth the path. The words appeared to suggest that the UK would seek to avoid future deviation from EU regulation and that Unionism’s place in the Union was secure. There were further reductions in the visibility of border checks. In practice, however, there had been no changes in treaty in either the Windsor Framework or the Good Friday Agreement. Furthermore, Ministers were keen to reassure their Brexit-supporters that the UK could continue to deviate from EU law as and when it liked.
Crucially, as long as the deal was enough to restart the Northern Ireland Assembly and to establish a new Executive, nobody from Brussels to Belfast stood in the way. For Sinn Fein, the prize of nominating a Sinn Fein ‘First’, as opposed to ‘deputy First’ Minister, was immense. Despite evident splits in the DUP and anti-Protocol movement and serious concerns about the promises made to the DUP to get them over the political line, the deal was on.
Nothing, of course is certain. Sinn Fein have embarked on a twin strategy of reassurance to Unionists while promoting the ‘inevitability’ of a poll on the future of the Irish border from a position of high visibility and confidence. The DUP have accepted, for now, that Northern Ireland has a Republican figure-head, but remain bruised by internal divisions and under attack from the ultra-Unionist wing. As the Ministries were shared out between the parties, Sinn Fein, traditionally the party of insurgent outsiders took control of finance economics and investment, while Unionists, traditional sceptics of state expenditure, took charge of the three largest spending Departments outside Justice. There are symbolically difficult decisions ahead on who gets what and whether symbolic projects like the expansion of the Gaelic Games stadium in West Belfast will get the go ahead and hugely difficult issues of public-spending to be negotiated.
But there were other signals. For the first time, the parties seemed at least to acknowledge that painful choices would be required if public services were to be saved. The tone of both the First and deputy First Ministers was conciliatory in the first days. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein made significant gestures of rapprochement in relation to education and policing, matters of serious contest in the past. Not least, all parties seemed to acknowledge for now, that the Northern Ireland population had reached the end of their tolerance for the absence of government decision-making. This, it seems, is the last chance saloon for mandatory coalition and nobody seems to fancy the alternatives too much.
It is early days. The honeymoon of new and still untested leadership, relief at the return of government and the hope of soon-to-be implemented backpay has lightened the mood. In one sense, the deal is the sign that Brexit is, finally, done for now. In another, the Northern Ireland that has been put together after is fragile and unstable, dependent on politics and economics in places where its influence is marginal, but the effect of its instability is considerable. The new balance of power that is in place is far from the balance imagined in 1998. The future of the Irish border, and of relations in Northern Ireland have changed but they have not been resolved. And much in Belfast depends on what happens in London, Dublin, Brussels and Edinburgh. One more step.