Dublin hoping for period of calm while compromises are worked out

Government and Opposition politicians believe it will take months before the tangle of issues in Stormont has any chance of being resolved

Bertie Ahern:  “There is a deep-seated concern within unionism that things on their side are out of control...”  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Bertie Ahern: “There is a deep-seated concern within unionism that things on their side are out of control...” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

There is some regret in Dublin that the leadership of Edwin Poots of the DUP has ended so ignominiously after just three weeks in office.

When he met Taoiseach Micheál Martin earlier this month, senior Irish officials felt that the new DUP leader was a combination of hardliner and pragmatist, but someone with whom they could, ultimately, do business.

Poots had been clear at that meeting he could not deliver an Irish language act during the current Assembly’s term of office, though he was not opposed in principle to the move on a longer timeframe.

Given that a Stormont election could be utterly catastrophic for the DUP right now, it is cautiously expected that Paul Givan will remain as First Minister – and therefore the institutions remain functioning – for now at least.

Dublin knows that Jeffrey Donaldson, if it is Donaldson that emerges as leader, would be a formidable presence as leader, and that he is likely to take a tough line from the outset.

However, his record shows that he is also a deal-maker: “We have dealt with him. He is familiar to people here as he appears on Irish media and comes across fairly reasonably,” said one senior source.

“He has years of experience, and has been there through the St Andrews [agreement process] so has good credentials as a negotiator,” The Irish Times was told.

The quandary facing everyone is this. The mechanism that seemed to allow the quick formation of an executive earlier this week (the British government guaranteeing passage of the language rights legislation by October if the Assembly failed to do it) can no longer work.

That is rock on which the Poots leadership foundered. Whoever succeeds him in the days ahead must oppose it if they are to carry the majority of DUP representatives.

Stormont election

Among Government and Opposition politicians in Dublin on Friday the consensus is that it will take some months before the tangle of issues in Stormont has any chance of being resolved.

However, the possibility of a Stormont election was downplayed strongly on the basis that if elections were held the likelihood of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party (and laying claim to the First Minister position) was a real one.

Diplomatic sources said it was inevitable the DUP will robustly seek equivalence for what it sees as concessions to Sinn Féin on the language legislation. That will manifest itself as a demand to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol.

“What do they want in order to win?” said one source. “I presume they are going to demand things around the protocol as they have been doing? The problem is the protocol is agreed and already in place and there is no alternative. The reality is they had four years to amend it.”

Among the politicians the message was to take a step back and for cool heads to prevail. This was well put by Simon Coveney: “The idea that we introduce an election in the middle of all of that, in the short term, which in some ways would be a referendum on the protocol and some of the issues of division we have seen, means that the election would be based on polarisation and division as opposed to focusing on policy change and governance to deal with problems in Northern Ireland.”

Similarly, the Taoiseach said: “It is very important that we all work collectively on the island towards maintaining stability, and [with] calm heads staying focused on what is important to the people.”

Bertie Ahern gave a stark snapshot of the state of unionism.

“There is a deep-seated concern within unionism that things on their side are out of control, that they don’t have friends in Westminster, they don’t have too many friends down here, they have no friends in America, as they see it, that politics isn’t working and they are on the back foot.”

Protocol

Attention will soon move to the DUP’s attitude to the protocol. Here again Dublin is hoping for a period of calm while compromises are worked out.

The UK has formally sought from the EU an extension of the grace period for the regulations governing the imports of chilled meats to the North – seeking to avoid the so-called “sausage war” – and Dublin is keen that Brussels should grant it. At a time of unprecedented turmoil in unionism, the last thing Dublin wants is for the EU to exacerbate tensions on the ground.

The irony is not lost on politicians in Dublin that a hardline DUP leader has been ousted for taking too centrist an approach on Irish language legislation only to be replaced by the nearest thing the DUP has to a centrist who will have no choice but to adopt an even more hardline position.

While there was personal sympathy for Poots, politicians in this jurisdiction struggled to understand why such a spectacular misstep had been made by a leader in the position for only three weeks.

“I don’t know the details of exactly how the machinations of the coup against Poots worked,” said Labour’s Brendan Howlin. “It was assumed that he would take a much harder line. How it happened that he misread it so badly that he then turned [his previous hardline stance] on its head. It’s all very hard to fathom.”