N. Ireland: After Two Year Boycott, What Did the DUP Gain?

Re-posted from Against the Stream

The Northern Ireland Assembly met on Saturday February 3rd, and after nearly two years of political paralysis, the Democratic Unionist Party agreed to return to the power-sharing Executive. Day-to-day control of the governing of Northern Ireland has once again been returned to the main parties. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Republic of Ireland Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Belfast to applaud this development but did not meet themselves or issue a joint press statement. There was speculation that Sunak would provide increased funding over to assist the Executive, above the £3.3 billion already on the table, but he did not do so.

As the dust settles all the contradictions inherent in the workings of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement remain to test the system. The problems facing ordinary working people have not changed and remain unresolved. There is an obvious and immediate shortfall in funding, especially for public sector pay claims. Whilst many workers and young people “welcome” the return of devolved government there is little sense of optimism. 

Checks and Balances

The Good Friday Agreement system relies on a complex series of checks and balances between political parties which represent either the Catholic or the Protestant communities. For the first time ever a party which represents Catholic voters, Sinn Fein, are the largest single party and it now holds the First Minister position. The DUP are the largest party representing the Protestant community, and they hold the Deputy First Minister position.

Michelle O’Neill’s cousin Tony Doris was shot dead with Pete Ryan and Lawrence McNally on June 3rd 1991. Their car was hit by 200 bullets and burst into flames.

Politics always remains in the shadow of the past in Northern Ireland, and this is personified by those in the key positions. First Minister Michelle O’Neill comes from a well-known “republican family”. Her father and uncle were both imprisoned for IRA activity, one of her cousins was shot dead whilst on IRA active service by British army Special Air Service soldiers, and another cousin was shot and badly wounded by the police in a separate incident.

The Deputy First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, is the daughter of Noel Little who was arrested in connection with a plot to import weapons illegally to arm the paramilitary group Ulster Resistance in the 1980s. Ulster Resistance was linked to previous DUP leaders and First Ministers Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. Many of its weapons later fell into the hands of other groups which were engaged in active campaigns of violence, but Ulster Resistance largely acted as “an army in waiting”.

Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP are involved in violence today, but these reminders of the past illustrate how politics works in the North of Ireland. Parties which are based on sectarian division amplify and defend the past activities of the fiercest partisans of “their” community. In the case of Sinn Fein this means that Michelle O’Neill argues that there was “no alternative” to the IRA campaign. This argument is put forward by Republicans on a regular basis, even by those who are now critical of the trajectory of the Republican movement.

Noel Little, fourth from left, in Ulster Resistance march. Future DUP leader and First Minister, is on his right.
Ulster Resistance march, Noel Little, 4th from left, Peter Robinson future First Minister, 3rd from left.

Donaldson Claims Victory

Now that the Assembly has returned the fierce disputes over post-Brexit trade arrangements appear to have been put to one side. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson is arguing that he has achieved a good deal for unionism and that the “border in the Irish Sea” is effectively gone. His claim is based on multiple changes to the Windsor House Framework. Each change is small, but which taken together they decrease the impact of cross-channel checks on goods. His argument does not hold water-the border is now less visible, but it remains firmly in place, as his opponents within unionism have pointed out.

Donaldson is also keen to promote a number of initiatives agreed with the British government, which give the impression of strengthening the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. These are mostly symbolic, and whilst they will reassure unionists, few trust the long-term intentions of the current or any British government. Nevertheless, these changes have assisted Donaldson in pushing through the deal.  

Donaldson third line of argument is that the two-year boycott achieved a substantial fiscal package (the £3.3 billion mentioned above). Whilst he is clear this sum is insufficient either to repair Northern Ireland’s battered public services or to meet the pay demands of public sector workers. Public services across England, Scotland and Wales are in a poor state after 14 years of Tory rule and austerity. In Northern Ireland, the situation is even worse, with for example, the longest waiting lists for health care.

Donaldson’s greatest achievement in fact, was to be listened to. From the moment of the vote to leave the European Union the DUP have been under attack. They have been derided and patronised when they weren’t being ignored. The DUP, a right-wing party who often say “no” to compromise, are an easy target. Attacks on the DUP however are an attack on the entire Protestant population, who were effectively told that they were backward looking and their views did not matter.

When negotiations began over post-Brexit trade arrangements, it was accepted that there could be no hardening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The assumption was that the only alternative was to create a new sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The views and attitudes of the majority of Protestants, who saw this as an attack on their identity, were simply ignored.

The Seeds of Future Disputes

It has been a long journey from the first agreement between Boris Johnson’s government and the EU to where we are today. There have been significant changes in substance from the original deal. More important however the DUP were listened to, unionism was listened to, and Protestants were listened to. Leo Varadkar has made much of the question of respect and Donaldson can rightly claim that he has achieved a place of respect for Ulster Protestants. He does not appear to be making this case, perhaps recognising that his critics will use an intangible victory such as this to attack him.

On balance Donaldson has won a narrow victory. He did not score a knockout blow and round two proper now begins. The trigger mechanism, which will allow 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly to object to any new EU legislation which impacts on Northern Ireland and which in their view diminishes the place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom will potentially lead to paralysis.  The mechanisms are complex, and we have analysed them previously in the article, “Windsor Framework” Will not Solve Fundamental Problems (April 3rd, 2023). 

Therein lie the seeds of future disputes, boycotts, and collapses. The Assembly and the Executive have only functioned for 60% of the time since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Devolved government has only been in place for two of the last seven years. The inherent contradictions of the peace process remain to trip up and undermine any sense of goodwill and agreement. Competition between sectarian blocs and within sectarian blocs will continue until a new, united, mass party of the working class emerges.

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