Newton Emerson: Stormont waiting for the DUP to change

The party has had six months to lay the groundwork for a second attempt to revive the assembly yet nothing is evident

Irresistible force has again been scheduled to meet immovable object as the Irish Government heavily hints at Stormont talks in the autumn. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has referred to a “window” between October, when Brexit withdrawal negotiations are meant to be finalised, and the end of this year.

It is epic optimism to hope these negotiations will conclude on time, avoid causing further Stormont complications, and provide such a wonderful Brexit solution that London and Dublin will have time to focus on Belfast.

Nevertheless, there is an irresistible drive to restore devolution – Stormont will eventually be back, after Brexit if not before. All sides want to see it, and nobody has a plausible alternative. The problem is the immovable object of the DUP.

In February its leadership reached a draft deal with Sinn Féin to resolve the Stormont impasse only to pull out after grassroots members and supporters expressed outrage at proposed Irish language legislation. The Orange Order was chief among the objectors.


No better deal is likely to be available: Sinn Féin settled for the weakest possible language legislation and rolled over on essentially everything else it had demanded since crashing Stormont the year before.

Any talks in the autumn will just mean selling February’s draft all over again, and there has been no sign so far of the DUP preparing its base or wider unionism for the necessary tactical retreat.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Leader Arlene Foster pandered to the Orange Order during last month’s July celebrations despite the order doubling down on its rejection of any Irish language legislation. This was an empty threat – with Sinn Féin and the DUP neck and neck the brethren can either support the DUP or see Sinn Féin become the largest party in Northern Ireland, as they should have been bluntly informed.

Divisive mistake

Stormont’s nail-biting two-horse race, an inevitable creation of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, is seen today as a divisive mistake. However, everyone – including London and Dublin – went into it with their eyes open, believing it would give both “extreme” parties the strength to face down hardliners in their respective communities.

That theory held for Sinn Féin, but the DUP just put it in the bank and carried on much as before. Now Foster’s weakness as a leader has produced the worst of both worlds – an unassailable unionist party running scared of hardliners.

Events moved quickly up to February’s abortive deal following a year in which Sinn Féin appeared to have written Stormont off altogether. The DUP had little time to prepare its supporters and may have believed the deal was good enough to sell itself.

No such excuse has applied since. The party has had six months to lay the groundwork for a second attempt and nothing has been evident. Foster has been dragged to a GAA match but that is hardly a talks issue.

Her predecessor, Peter Robinson, has made dramatic speeches on the future of unionism – at Queen’s University Belfast last month and again last weekend – but his former party has ignored or disowned him.

Meanwhile, no DUP representative has budged an inch in public on landmark issues or voiced the slightest uncomfortable truth to Orangemen, loyalists or intransigent constituents. Foster continues to blame the Stormont deadlock entirely on republicans.

The DUP did begin to move after the shock of the March 2017 assembly election when Sinn Féin came within 1,000 votes of surpassing it. Foster went from ruling out any Irish language Act to promoting the concept of a “cultures Act”, matching Irish with Ulster-Scots. Then the June 2017 Westminster election restored DUP fortunes, and the prickly arrogance returned. It seems the DUP only responds to an immediate terrible fright.

Westminster deal

Republicans have taken to blaming the Stormont impasse on the DUP-Tory Westminster deal, although the impasse was firmly established before that deal was struck.

The Westminster deal is a factor, but not because it lets the DUP tail wag the Tory dog, as commonly alleged. The British government remains firmly resistant to DUP demands to intervene in Northern Ireland on unionism’s behalf – most recently this week when it brushed off another call from Foster to take direct rule decisions.

The problem with the Westminster deal is that it stops the British government imposing itself on the DUP, by passing language legislation, for example, fulfilling the role nationalist Ireland has quietly expected of London throughout the peace process of leaning on recalcitrant unionism.

This expectation of “Brits in” is an ideological conundrum, which is why complaints about the Westminster deal are a paranoid mess. That will also be back to haunt us in the autumn.

So we are waiting for the DUP to change on its own, and there is scant sign any change is imminent. The best hope is for something else to change – perhaps at Westminster or involving Brexit – that gives the unionists another terrible fright.