The Irish Times view on British policy on Northern Ireland: plotting a way out of the impasse

It is not good enough that the very existence of a government in Belfast is being held up by the narrow political needs of Boris Johnson and the DUP

Boris Johnson’s government is susceptible to pressure from the DUP, even if the unionist party will know from experience that it cannot count on the British prime minister. Photograph: Frank Augstein/ WPA Pool/Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s government is susceptible to pressure from the DUP, even if the unionist party will know from experience that it cannot count on the British prime minister. Photograph: Frank Augstein/ WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

British government policy on Northern Ireland will come under renewed scrutiny after a Stormont Assembly election that has redrawn the political map and left London and Dublin with an important role to play in helping the parties to form a new Executive. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), now the second force in Northern politics, maintains it will veto the formation of a new Executive until its demands for change to the Northern Ireland protocol are met. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson yesterday confirmed that he will not for now take up the Assembly seat he won in the Lagan Valley constituency. That helps the party avoid a Westminster byelection that it may be loath to fight so soon after a punishing campaign, and Donaldson has said he wishes to remain in London to keep pressure on Boris Johnson over the protocol.

It is not good enough that the very existence of a government in Belfast is being held up by the narrow political needs of Boris Johnson and the DUP

Johnson’s government is susceptible to such pressure, even if the DUP will know from experience that it cannot count on the British prime minister. The party was dismayed at the exclusion from the queen’s speech of any explicit commitment to act unilaterally on the protocol, but it did contain coded reference to that threat and briefings in London suggest that the plan remains on the table.

There were more encouraging signals elsewhere in the speech, in the pledge to enact legislation finally to give official recognition to the Irish language in Northern Ireland and in confirmation that London has dropped plans for a blanket amnesty for Troubles-related offences.

On both issues, this is only partial progress. The proposal for a conditional amnesty has been roundly criticised by survivors’ and rights groups, who argue that it would still impede access to justice. And the pledge to act on language rights is not new and certainly does not imply that action on this long-standing commitment is imminent.

The chaos, organisational shortcomings and lack of credibility at the heart of the British government may hold up or entirely stymie any attempt to act unilaterally on the protocol. The problem is that the DUP has backed itself into a corner, having fought its campaign on the issue even though opinion polls showed it was a relatively marginal concern for voters. Dublin and Brussels maintain that the EU side has moved in important ways on easing the implementation of the protocol but that these steps have not been reciprocated and that London shows no sign of actually wanting a deal.

Any means that can be found to include the Northern parties in dialogue on the protocol should be explored. It is not good enough that the very existence of a government in Belfast is being held up by the narrow political needs of Boris Johnson and the DUP. A majority of Northern voters chose candidates who want to make the protocol work. An even larger majority want an Executive that can get to work on the issues that affect their daily lives.

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