Sense of déjà vu with Stormont as ‘zombie’ Executive continues

Stalemate following election is not what most in Northern Ireland want

We have been here before. Certainly the journalists have been here before, most recently just over two years ago when yet another Christmas season was spent pacing the floor of the Great Hall at Stormont, waiting for the breakthrough which eventually became the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

The politicians, the diplomats and the advisers have also been here before; on Friday morning, before the meeting of the Assembly at which the DUP had already signalled it would block the appointment of a speaker – the prerequisite for any Assembly business – the speculation was not about what would happen that afternoon, but about where a potential talks process might be held.

And the public has been here before. Since February there has been only a "zombie" Executive due to the resignation of the then DUP first minister, Paul Givan, as part of his party's opposition to the protocol; now there will also be the spectre of an empty Assembly chamber. People "will be screaming for help and we will be silent," said the UUP leader, Doug Beattie.

This is not what most people in Northern Ireland want; anecdotally and on the doorsteps during the recent election campaign, the overwhelming message was that people wanted the Executive back up and running.

Polling

The polling backs this up: in a study published in April by the University of Liverpool/the Irish News, published in April, people were asked to rate their preferred actions if an Assembly was not formed after the election.

The statement that “an Executive should be formed and political parties should accept the outcome of the election” was the clear favourite, chosen by 45 per cent of respondents as their first preference and 27 per cent as their second. What was also clear was that there was no appetite for a lengthy period of negotiation.

Yet in the Great Hall on Friday morning the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, defended his party's action on the basis that it has a "mandate" from its voters not to go back into government until there has been "decisive action" from London on the protocol.

And so Stormont is effectively suspended. The current state of play – no Assembly, no first or deputy first minister, and only caretaker ministers who are unable to take new, significant or controversial decisions – can stagger on for at most six months, after which the entire house of cards collapses and it will fall to the Northern secretary to call an election – though precisely what this might achieve is open to doubt.

What the DUP needs now is a way back into the Assembly; in theory, this could come next week if, as indicated, the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, announces on Tuesday that the British government will legislate to disapply parts of the protocol.

DUP gamble

This is the DUP’s gamble: that by going all in and effectively pulling down the Assembly this will exert maximum pressure on London and convince it that it must deliver the action on the protocol that will lift the DUP off the protocol-shaped hook it has got itself stuck on and, in consequence, restore the Assembly.

What could possibly go wrong? For one, the fact that even the DUP does not trust the UK government, and will freely admit this in private. Asked by The Irish Times on Friday if he trusted it to deliver next week, there was no unequivocal response from Mr Donaldson; instead, he replied that the ball was in Boris Johnson’s court and it would be actions, not words, that would determine how the DUP would proceed. “I’m looking now to the government to see what they intend to do,” he said.

It is unlikely to be straightforward. It is to state the obvious to point out that the DUP has been burned before, and the reality is that Donaldson will want a concrete commitment – preferably through legislation – before conceding any ground. The other parties will also have their own asks, which inevitably points towards a period of negotiation.

With both Johnson and Taoiseach Micheál Martin due in Belfast next week, it is starting to feel a lot like a talks process.

If there is one thing we have learned from being here before, is that it is much easier to tear things down than to build them back up. We may be here for some time.