Stormont in crisis again as DUP shifts into election mode

Not to have acted would have left Donaldson vulnerable to attack from political opponents

Stormont is in crisis, again. As they waited in a south Belfast hotel for Paul Givan to resign as First Minister on Thursday, reporters worked out the timeline: five years since the last time Stormont collapsed, three years of suspension and two years since it was restored.

Those two years have not been without their challenges, not least the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit. The departure of the First Minister – which also removes Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill from her post and means the Executive cannot function – threw much practical progress into doubt.

Though efforts were under way on Thursday night to rush through as much as possible before Givan’s resignation took effect at midnight, question marks hovered over projects as varied as organ donation legislation, an official apology to the survivors of historical institutional abuse and the remaining Covid-19 rules – never mind a Stormont budget which, for the first time in more than a decade, would allow departments to plan further than 12 months ahead.

“Any chance we could agree the three-year budget before we enter the wilderness?” the Belfast GP and British Medical Association representative Dr Alan Stout asked on social media.

Economic impact

Asked at a press conference on Thursday evening what he would say to “people on waiting lists, those businesses crying out for certainty”, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson emphasised yet again what he described as the economic “harm” caused by the Northern Ireland protocol.

“It is costing the Northern Ireland economy £100,000 every single hour . . . We can’t ignore that, and I have businesses coming to me every day and saying that the protocol is harming their business, their profitability, their ability to expand, and therefore we have to deal with this issue.”

Clearly those businesses are not among the 1,200 members of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry which strongly criticised the First Minister’s resignation last night, saying it would “negatively impact” people and businesses, leaving legislation and decision-making “in limbo” and, along with the order to suspend post-Brexit SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] checks at the North’s ports, created an “unsustainable level of uncertainty”.

Donaldson played down the implications, emphasising that other ministers remain in post and there are “ongoing negotiations . . . the time is right now to apply the maximum leverage on the EU to bring forward sensible proposals that will resolve this issue and do so quickly so that we can get back to the business of meeting as an Executive”.

But going on previous experience, only an extreme optimist would foresee a swift resolution.

An election is expected on May 5th, notwithstanding the call from both DUP and Sinn Féin for an early election. In the event that Sinn Féin becomes the largest party, it is far from clear if the DUP would agree to nominate a deputy first minister.

Election mode

What was clear on Thursday afternoon was that the DUP was in election mode. It was time, Donaldson said, “to take our case to the people of Northern Ireland. I believe it is time for the people of Northern Ireland to have their say.”

Donaldson had promised in the autumn that if satisfactory changes to the protocol were not forthcoming he would withdraw his ministers. Now he has followed through, the order to cease port checks and the First Minister’s resignation a choreographed double punch delivered within 24 hours as part of his strategy to fight the protocol – though whether it will achieve its stated aim remains to be seen.

In reality, Donaldson had little choice: after repeated threats, not to have acted would have left him and his party vulnerable to attack from his political opponents come the election – an election in which, if polling is correct, Sinn Féin appears likely to overtake the DUP as the largest party.

In this context, a political crisis – particularly one framed in existential terms, in this case of the protocol’s perceived threat to unionism – is a tried and tested means of galvanising political support, as evidenced in the election triggered when Sinn Féin exited the Assembly in 2017.

Yet much has changed between now and then, not least with increased percentage of voters choosing the middle ground. Almost 17 per cent voted Alliance in the North’s most recent election, in 2019; this time around, the party’s performance will be one of the results to watch.

Inevitably, broader questions remain, not least the long-term sustainability of the North’s political institutions.

The last time Stormont was restored, commentators remarked that if it fell again it would never get back up. Now that prediction is to be put to the test.