Two interlocking threats to collapse Stormont came to a head this week and came to nothing, revealing how cynically and casually such threats are now deployed.
Seven weeks ago, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson vowed to pull his ministers out of Stormont before November if his demands on the Northern Ireland protocol were not met.
The threat was made in a prominent speech and had been carefully plotted out. Rather than make a hopeless demand for the protocol to be scrapped, Donaldson said Westminster must legislate to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
The UK government does appear to be preparing language legislation, but there is clearly little danger of a Sinn Féin walkout if the timetable slips
This is a commitment under last year’s New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal, signed by all five Stormont Executive parties and the British and Irish governments, and arguably consistent with the protocol itself.
Donaldson's threat was treated fairly seriously and it was always understood his deadline might shift with developments, but November is now almost upon us with no sign of legislation or of the DUP walking out. Rival unionists and loyalists have been teasing Donaldson all week, with TUV leader Jim Allister demanding the threat be honoured.
The DUP’s response was a sheepish party statement saying “our position has not changed” and “implementing NDNA in a one-sided manner is . . . not a sustainable position”. Donaldson added his warning still stands, even if his deadline has fallen.
Irish language legislation
That brings us to the second threat to Stormont.
In June, Sinn Féin said it would collapse the executive without guaranteed delivery of the Irish language legislation agreed in NDNA.
The opportunity to make this threat was the DUP's extraordinary leadership crisis. Edwin Poots, Donaldson's fleeting predecessor, had to nominate a new first minister, requiring Sinn Féin to re-nominate Michelle O'Neill as deputy first minister.
Sinn Féin warned it would not do so, collapsing devolution.
Brandon Lewis, the northern secretary, promised Mary Lou McDonald in person that Westminster would commence the language legislation in October if Stormont had not done so.
Poots concurred and rushed through his ministerial nominations without properly consulting the DUP, causing his leadership to unravel.
Sinn Féin’s threat to Stormont was taken seriously and Donaldson based his threat upon it: the new DUP leader said if Westminster were to pass the language part of NDNA by October, there would be no excuse for not passing the UK internal market part – or ‘themmuns started it’, to use the traditional expression.
The obvious suspicion is the UK government finds Stormont's fragility useful in negotiations with the European Union. 'Serious societal difficulties' are a trigger to suspend the protocol under article 16
As this week began, Irish language campaigners warned the deadline was due. But any prospect of a crisis evaporated when O’Neill breezily declared she expected movement at Westminster in “the next week or so”.
The UK government does appear to be preparing language legislation, but there is clearly little danger of a Sinn Féin walkout if the timetable slips.
Although collapsing devolution has some appeal to hardliners on both sides, it is deeply unpopular with the electorate overall. Voters punished Sinn Féin and the DUP for the last collapse and it is evident both parties fear history would repeat itself.
The sense of fragility despite this brings us to a third threat to Stormont, from the UK government itself.
The House of Commons did pass a piece of NDNA legislation this week, designed to prevent an executive collapse. The Bill, which must now go to the Lords, will extend the period between one of the two main parties walking out and a collapse from one week to six months.
The DUP demanded this legislation and O’Neill welcomed its progress this week. Neither party objected to it taking priority over their language or protocol concerns. However, its progress has still been frustratingly slow.
The UK government has been warned throughout this year, including by its own backbenchers, to get on with it as a matter of urgency. The Bill’s passage was substantially complete by early July and could have been through the Lords before parliament’s summer recess.
Westminster can pass laws for Northern Ireland in days when the government orders it. UUP leader Doug Beattie noted his disappointed this week the Bill has not benefited from accelerated passage.
The obvious suspicion is the UK government finds Stormont’s fragility useful in negotiations with the European Union. “Serious societal difficulties” are a trigger to suspend the protocol under article 16.
Notably, this is not a conspiracy theory given much credence at Stormont or Westminster. In the Commons this week, there was consensus the Bill has to be painstakingly debated because it makes fundamental changes to a Belfast Agreement institution.
That still does not justify the tardiness to date or the risk it leaves open of Stormont collapsing by accident. Normal passage at this pace will stretch into the new year. An unnecessary and unusual clause in the Bill means it will not come into effect until two months after enactment, by which point next May’s assembly election will be in sight.
Whether or not the British government sees the instability of Stormont as a weapon, decommissioning is taking far too long.