The choice facing the DUP is to trust the Tories on the Windsor Framework and return to Stormont, or wait for a Labour government to realign the UK with Europe and make unionism’s Brexit problems fade away.
Leader Jeffrey Donaldson is inclined to return, as are a majority of DUP representatives. They believe London can give them sufficient assurances on Northern Ireland’s place in the union, at least to cover a climbdown. But the case for waiting has been inadvertently bolstered over the past week by both main Westminster parties.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has given his clearest statements to date on seeking a closer UK-EU trade deal that would remove much of the sea border. This is no far-off hope for unionism: Starmer should be prime minister in just over a year.
While Labour tempts the DUP to wait, the Tories are deepening unionist mistrust.
Last week, the UK government briefed Stormont parties that it will take full control of implementing the Windsor Framework if devolution is not restored by October.
London says it has to intervene as the framework is a treaty with binding obligations. Talks with the DUP continue but the party’s Stormont boycott has now lost its official justification. Some might say the DUP’s bluff has been called; others wonder if a rescue is being attempted by taking responsibility out of Donaldson’s hands.
Logic dictates the DUP might as well return to Stormont if the framework will be fully implemented anyway. Devolved functions such as running border inspection posts could be retained by London to spare the DUP the embarrassment of facilitating them.
That overlooks the humiliation of bouncing the DUP back to work. Tory tactics are hardly subtle and Donaldson looks increasingly desperate as he insists talks are still progressing but are not quite complete. He may be unable to carry a deal, or be unwilling to try, if he has obviously been forced to accept a fait accompli.
Most parts of the Windsor Framework must be implemented between next month and October next year, the UK government’s probable remaining lifespan. Implementation is bound to throw up challenges and controversies, any one of which could destabilise a revived Stormont.
The framework’s true achievement was repairing the London-Brussels relationship, enabling a more flexible approach to still-unsolved protocol problems. As the UK government staggers towards its demise and Brussels anticipates a Labour successor, that joint focus on solutions will be hard to maintain.
For the DUP, it could seem safest to stand back, say ‘we told you so’ and keep Stormont down as a form of protest. This argument strengthens exponentially with time. Once the government’s lifespan is measured in months, why take any risk of guilt by association?
Any further damage from a Stormont boycott, to the union or anything else, is a needless self-indulgence by the DUP
Nationalists and other unionists have warned the DUP its boycott is damaging the union. Maybe so, but the impact will not be fatal before the next general election. Potential damage from the framework might genuinely appear far worse.
Stormont would return with Sinn Féin leading the executive, creating a lose-lose situation for the DUP. If framework implementation goes smoothly, republicans would be best placed to seek credit and set a narrative of an evolving ‘dual-state’ Northern Ireland. If it goes wrong, unionist voters would blame the DUP.
Crises from hospital waiting lists to pollution in Lough Neagh are driving calls for Stormont’s return, but also proving it would be no panacea – these problems arose under devolution. Some voices, not only within unionism, are asking if restoration should be rushed when institutional reform is plainly essential. A new budget arrangement is already a DUP demand. Perhaps this should also wait for a Labour government.
Starmer’s ambitions are not beyond criticism. He has been ridiculed by trade experts for ruling out rejoining the European Union single market and customs union. Without rejoining, the UK’s existing deal cannot be much improved. The Labour leader wants to renegotiate the deal at its scheduled 2025 review, never intended for this purpose. However, what is cakeism for Britain could suffice for Northern Ireland. Starmer has specified a veterinary agreement and mutual assessment of product standards, both doable although difficult. They would make many contentious aspects of the framework redundant.
Starmer may want closer alignment than he is prepared to admit. This week’s Franco-German proposal for EU associate membership is aimed at a Labour government. It would involve single market membership, which would be the end of the Windsor Framework.
Waiting for Labour would still be a mistake. Any further damage from a Stormont boycott, to the union or anything else, is a needless self-indulgence by the DUP, when Starmer will almost certainly be in office soon enough, trying to lower the sea border and reform devolution regardless. But it would be an understandable mistake, and it is only becoming more likely.