I’ve seen far too many “breakthroughs” come and go in Northern Ireland to abandon my usual pessimism just yet. Just because we seem to have a deal that should restore the Assembly and Executive fairly quickly, it certainly doesn’t follow that we’ll have a form of governance – let alone one underpinned by genuine trust and co-operation – that will make a button of difference to most people’s everyday lives. Institutional stability is not a given, either.
That said, Jeffrey Donaldson has pulled off a remarkable victory in the face of the combined efforts of internal and external opponents. He has had to face down some of the biggest beasts in his own party as well as other members who have been working hand in glove with political/electoral rivals, some of whom oppose the return of devolution at all, believing it to be a bigger long-term threat to the union than even a border in the Irish Sea.
The full details of the deal endorsed by the DUP at a rowdy, occasionally farcical meeting last night won’t be known for a couple of days, but it is clear that flexibility has been required. The sort of flexibility that will unsettle unionism, the majority of which, according to a run of opinion polls, has supported the party’s boycott of the Assembly since February 2022. So, the greatest challenge for Donaldson has been to find a way to persuade his party to backtrack from a popular manifesto commitment not to reboot Stormont until the Irish sea border, Windsor Framework and EU legislation in Northern Ireland had been removed.
None of them have been removed, although there has been some tinkering around the edges, along with promises of legislative changes to shore up Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. Over the years and since 1972 in particular, unionists have got used to coping with what they perceive as constitutional challenges to their status as citizens of the UK. They’ve long accepted that Northern Ireland has had a “place apart” status, but at least it was always a place apart within the UK. But last year’s Windsor Framework changed that, leaving them under both UK and EU regulations, what I described as the constitutional equivalent of a granny flat.
Once the framework was endorsed by massive parliamentary majorities last March it was clear it was here to stay for a longish time. The most the DUP could get was some sort of arrangement that softened its impact in some areas, accompanied by changes that acknowledged Northern Ireland’s specific and continuing status within the UK. None of this was ever going to be enough for the purists in unionism/loyalism, although, as Donaldson noted in an unusually impassioned speech in the House of Commons last Wednesday, those purists haven’t produced, let alone delivered any alternatives of their own.
In taking the battle to them over the past few weeks, he changed the dynamics of his strategy. His focus shifted to how Northern Ireland secured itself in the union for the long term. That task, he argued, was best accomplished by proving that it “worked” and, crucially, that it would work in the interests of unionism, nationalism and “others”. But key to that, of course, was forcing his party to make a huge decision on the choice between what he described last week as “imperfect devolution and imperfect direct rule”. Which, in turn, would become part of the process to further persuade them to backtrack on previous positions set out in the party’s seven tests for a return to Stormont.
Ironically, he was helped by the fact that a succession of post-Brexit prime ministers (Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak) and governments hadn’t exactly been useful to the unionist cause since 2017. Indeed, all four of them have been accused of serial let-downs. Why, he argued, would the DUP favour direct rule over devolution when it meant putting all of its eggs into the direct rule basket?
More important, reaching the point at which devolution could be mothballed for a long, long time (which is what would happen if the party’s overarching strategy was rooted in purist inflexibility) would mean it would no longer have a significant power base in Northern Ireland and, given the likelihood of a thumping Labour majority fairly soon, no influence whatsoever at Westminster. Again, he argued, that would place all of unionism in a very weak position.
Strengthening the union, securing a power base in Northern Ireland, prioritising devolution over direct rule, underpinning political stability and proving Northern Ireland could “work” as a key part within the UK became the framework around which he gravitated from pointless purism to self-preserving adaptability. It now seems clear some sort of understanding had been reached with Sunak (probably with a nod of approval from the EU) that, in return for delivering his party, he would deliver the legislative changes Donaldson required to sell what would still be a difficult deal to a party spooked by one setback after another since 2017.
Nothing is set in stone yet. We don’t know if the DUP will be hit by significant defections from its MLA, MP or officer teams. We don’t know if Donaldson will be hounded and broken the way David Trimble was. We don’t know if his internal and external opponents will expand and formalise their opposition to him. We don’t know if Sunak will honour his promises (which hasn’t usually been the case with PMs lately). To paraphrase David Trimble when the first executive was established in November 1999 without IRA decommissioning: “We have jumped prime minister. It’s over to you now.”
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party