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Newton Emerson: North’s lockdown exit plan marks a big leap by Sinn Féin

SF-DUP truce at Stormont will come under pressure as pandemic measures are eased

Stormont’s lockdown exit plan represents the culmination of a truce between Sinn Féin and the DUP. This is a good thing and certainly better than another collapse of devolution. However, it is not without its problems.

The Stormont plan looks similar to the Republic's, comprising five exit stages. But the details are different: museums will open at stage three in the North and stage four in the South; cafes will open at stage three in the South and stage five in the North.

The main difference is that the Stormont plan contains no dates. Progress will be judged by scientific criteria on the epidemic and the preparedness of the authorities.

British versus Irish alignment was not the only dispute

The Republic's plan has similar triggers and prioritises them over timing, so what the people of Northern Ireland are being denied is hope rather than precision. The DUP and Sinn Féin say this is to avoid "disappointment". At least they have not lost their sense of humour.


The three-step exit plan from the UK government also contains no dates, but ministers in London have been quick to brief on their expected time frame, which is much faster than in the Republic. By contrast, Sinn Féin and the DUP briefed in advance that their plan would have no dates.

The obvious suspicion is that this is a classic case of Stormont kicking the can down the road. It had arguments on the way into lockdown about cross-Border and intra-UK differences, which can be avoided on the way out through ambiguity and stalling.

British versus Irish alignment was not the only dispute. Last month, Sinn Féin tried to create an economic wedge issue by accusing “some unionists” of wanting to hurry out of lockdown due to “neoliberal values”.

The only basis for this claim was one DUP minister calling for garden centres to reopen, but it chimed with political preconceptions. Stalling would also defuse this argument.

Coherent whole

In reality, Sinn Féin and the DUP can slow exit down but they did not have free rein to design a plan for their own purposes.

There are five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, which has its own scientific advisers.

A criteria-based approach is entirely rational and Stormont’s plan forms a coherent whole: its differences with the Republic arise from applying the criteria objectively. The lack of dates has been criticised by the SDLP but strongly defended by the UUP and Alliance.

The DUP has accepted a plan closer to the Republic than to Britain, while Sinn Féin has accepted Northern Ireland can have its own plan. Arguably, republicans have made the bigger leap – unionists have no issue with treating the North as a distinct region.

Ultimately, Sinn Féin and the DUP will have to abandon lockdown once it becomes widely unpopular

So a genuine rapprochement has been reached on a proper policy.

The question is whether this truce can hold.

Sinn Féin and the DUP stopped arguing because the public clearly wanted united leadership on the epidemic. Governments everywhere have experienced a rise in support for the same reason, but that support is starting to fall as shock fades and failures come to light. Northern Ireland will be no different – its usual politics will resume shortly.

Last year’s Alliance surge might have fundamentally shifted northern politics into a more co-operative mode. It forced Sinn Féin and the DUP back into office in January against all the odds. Having since had another sharp reminder of the need to work together, they could sustain a united front until the exit plan is delivered.

But their first instinct will undoubtedly be caution. Pressed for a time frame this week, DUP First Minister Arlene Foster said she hoped the plan's final stage would be reached in December, which would be four months behind the Republic.

Temptation to delay

Stormont’s easiest course will be maintaining restrictions until the rest of the UK and Ireland have already moved and the public is demanding change. In the end, this would amount to no plan. The Executive would simply be waiting for lockdown to break down.

The high degree of public spending and public sector employment in Northern Ireland is a further temptation to delay. It means more compliance and less pain overall but it leaves the private sector dreadfully exposed. The hospitality industry complained immediately about the lack of dates in the exit plan.

In England, ministers are spoiling for a fight with teaching unions to reopen schools next month. At Stormont, the DUP has offered teachers a pay rise and will not commit to any reopening schedule. So much for neoliberal values.

The extension of the UK’s furlough scheme until October might save some businesses but it will mean English taxpayers working to keep people elsewhere at home. London will apply pressure for the devolved regions to catch up, putting the Stormont truce under strain.

Ultimately, Sinn Féin and the DUP will have to abandon lockdown once it becomes widely unpopular, as every government must do, through political and practical necessity.

Is it plausible this will not happen until December, months after everywhere else in Europe?