Brexit: The govt must please both the Europeans and the DUP to solve the stalemate in Northern Ireland
There aren’t many causes for optimism in British politics right now. Yet one that seems to be getting people increasingly excited is the possibility that Britain and the EU are close to agreeing a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
British ministerial sources are reporting good progress is being made in the talks, and even Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar has admitted that the initial version of the Protocol was far too tightly drawn. Both the European commission and British government have paused their most aggressive gambits – be that the Europeans’ threat to sue Britain for non-compliance, or the British government threatening to change the law to unilaterally rewrite the Protocol.
There is one problem however – the nature of the deal being discussed doesn’t seem to be one that actually addresses the problems Northern Ireland’s Unionists have with the Protocol. Indeed, British ministerial sources are briefing that they will go ahead without the Democratic Unionist Party, the DUP.
This is insanity. The practical inconveniences caused by the Protocol are manifold, but the DUP’s boycott is what has turned it into a political crisis by fatally undermining the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement. Signed twenty-five years ago, it restored devolution by bringing together representatives from all Northern Ireland’s major parties to govern in a fair and inclusive way. Unfortunately the parties have repeatedly found themselves unable to come together, with arguments over decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, continued activities of the IRA, personal and professional scandals involving DUP ministers, and the status of the Irish language having all caused devolved government to implode at one time or another. Stormont has been fully functional for less than 40 per cent of the time since it was re-established in 1998, according to the University of Liverpool’s Jon Tongue.
But while everyone across Northern Ireland becomes frustrated at the repeated failures of its institutions, they are rarely inclined to blame their own side’s intransigence. Worse, there is always a danger that politicians would actually be punished by their own side for making the compromises that are necessary to make government work. The current impasse is no different. The limitations placed on Northern Ireland’s trade with Great Britain are genuinely unpopular amongst Unionist voters, and boycotting power-sharing since February of last year has strengthened, not weakened the DUP.
Then it’s not surprising that the current impasse has made some people despair at the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland. There have been vague calls to reform power-sharing so that one party cannot hold the whole process hostage as the DUP and before them Sinn Fein have done recently. Whilst understandable, such calls are mistaken given both parties dominance; their more moderate rivals represent less than a quarter of each community’s Stormont delegation.
But if a deal that satisfies the DUP cannot be reached and there is no way to reform Stormont to render their boycott irrelevant, then the government will be drawn into a bigger argument over the future of Northern Ireland. During the last prolonged suspension of power-sharing, Theresa May avoided assuming formal responsibility for the provision of devolved services, at the cost of leaving local civil servants responsible for keeping the Northern Irish state functioning. This cowardly approach has been recognised as having disastrous consequences for the province, as with no one empowered to make strategic decisions, problems were only addressed when they reached sufficient urgency to justify intervention. An attempt by Rishi Sunak to repeat such an approach would meet considerable resistance from civil servants on both sides of the Irish Sea.
But likewise, the full reimposition of “Direct Rule” with Tory ministers appointed to assume political control of the Northern Irish state would provoke howls of outrage from the nationalist community. Indeed, the Irish government has already suggested that should devolution not be restored this year, it should have a formal role in the governance of the province, the type of joint authority that is anathema to Unionists.
The British government has to face up to the true reality of the situation it faces. The only way to end the stalemate is to secure a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol that both pleases the Europeans and placates the DUP. Anything less isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.