DUP leadership crisis adds to pressures on Stormont

Pic Credit: UK Parliament/Maria Unger/CC3.0

Jeffrey Donaldson MP resigned his position as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) party leader suddenly and unexpectedly on the morning of Good Friday, the twenty-seventh since the Belfast agreement was negotiated in 1997. The announcement came as a political thunderbolt and was further compounded by the fact that it followed his arrest on charges of historic sexual offences.

At the end of January, Donaldson had demonstrated considerable authority in very personally leading his party back into power-sharing institutions and facing down his erstwhile hardline critics. In doing so he asserted that his party has secured major concessions in negotiations with the British government over post-Brexit checks on trade between Great Britain and the region. His decision was all the more striking as it led to the election of Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as First Minister, the first nationalist to hold such a position in the history of the state.

Given the strength of his stance against critics, Donaldson’s fall from grace was all the greater. As might be anticipated his critics seized upon the developments to question whether he had made the decision under duress with the suggestion that he had been compromised.

While the wider DUP leadership quickly moved to nominate East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, from the more liberal wing of the party, as interim leader – a position very likely to become permanent – and their representation in Stormont is largely unaffected by the loss of Donaldson who sits in Westminster, it is clear that the high profile arrest of their leader has been a heavy body blow to the party and one which may have long-term consequences for its future.

As might be expected nationalists and liberal critics of the hardline DUP responded with a carnival of schadenfreude on social media at the catastrophic fall of the leader of their political opponents. For its part, Sinn Féín displayed reticence and sought to emphasizing the role of the police to pursue the case. Further instability in the institutions does not suit the party at this time.

A new turn in Stormont?

Indeed since the beginning of February when the Stormont Executive was re-established, both Sinn Féin and DUP have engineered what are quite remarkable photo opportunities to be seen reaching out beyond their traditional support-base.

Only two months ago it would have inconceivable that DUP deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly would join the Sinn Féin First Minister pucking out on a GAA pitch or that a DUP Education Minister (Paul Given) would dance an Irish gig in an Irish-language school while asserting that the Irish language belongs to everyone in Northern Ireland.

For its part, Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill attended a Northern Ireland soccer game at Windsor Park grounds, which are associated with Unionism, where she was content to stand for ‘God Save the King’.

While these may be considered gesture politics, it is certainly true that they are calculated political moves, they also reflect recognition in both parties of the new reality in Northern Ireland where neither unionism nor nationalism are a majority. The battle for the constitutional future of the region will be fought out among the growing numbers who identity with neither camp. Both parties need to find ways – usually symbolic only – to show their openness and tolerance.

Sinn Féin has shown great ability to use such gestures to good effect, whether it was party leaders shaking the hands of British royalty or participating in British army armistice day events. Indeed, over the last two decades, the republican leadership has shown considerable skill in getting members to accept previously unmentionable compromises and concessions with the promise of keeping their ‘eyes on the prize’.

By comparison, the DUP has been marked by its extreme inflexibility. This has largely led its opponents onto its political territory including participation in a Stormont Executive which is a devolved institution within the United Kingdom but it has also led the party to shed considerable support – to the Traditional Unionist Voice to its right and to the Ulster Unionists and Alliance to its left.

In this light, the gestures by the DUP were more significant and will have caused disquiet among more conservative elements – many of whom have an abiding hatred for any thing Irish.

Such gestures are only possible for party leaderships in a position of strength against its hardline critics. While its earlier concessions were real-politik, Sinn Féin now has the wind behind its back due to its strong electoral performance north and south as well as changing demographics in the north. By comparison, the DUP leaders were striking boldly to cut across critics both internal and external who had been wrong-footed by their sharp turn back into government. That said, as with Sinn Féin, the DUP has little choice: it is the logic of power-sharing – they must be seen to make it work for the capitalist class, delivery some semblance of stability and try to convey a forward momentum.

Tensions behind closed doors

While the two parties were showing a united front through symbolic gestures, the reality is that there are significant tensions within the Executive.

All the parties in Stormont face the inadequacy of public finances to fund expenditure. The do not want the public opprobrium of imposing ‘revenue raising’ measures such as a 15% rates hike demanded by the Tories as the price for debt forgiveness. But equally none of them want to be held responsible for cutbacks or service rationing.

The result is that a political blame-game is played out in Assembly scrutiny committees and in councils, where parties who sit together in the Executive use these public platforms to pile on blame on Ministers from other parties for cuts. These attacks are deeply opportunist as all of the parties have fundamentally the same commitment to neo-liberal economics but act to misdirect public anger over decisions. That said, it is somewhere between a dramatic act and party politics – and while the public see through it – it is sufficient to avoid being held to account.

Blame-game politics is sharper than usual due to the pressing nature of the budgetary pressures. Recently we have seen the DUP Education and Community Ministers blame the Sinn Féin Finance Minister for inadequate budgets while Sinn Féin MLAs have blamed the DUP Ministers for not being able to make the hard decisions to live within their budget.

While such party-political manoeuvres are not unknown among coalition partners, the increasing demand for a border poll on the future of Northern Ireland adds another dimension to the inter-party frictions in Stormont.

Sinn Féin followed up the election of Michelle O’Neill as First Minister by using the post as an international platform to raise the demand for a border poll. The DUP responded that such calls are divisive, as there is no suggestion of a majority for reunification at this time, and that the priority must be making Northern Ireland work. The Alliance party ends up squeezed, as the cross-community party ends up adopting positions pleasing neither side.

Post-Brexit frictions continue to fester

The DUP withdrew from the Executive and Assembly two years ago because of the imposition of sea border checks and custom duties on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – a move agreed by London and Brussels to avoid such checks on the Irish border after Brexit. Such barriers to trade within the United Kingdom breached the UK single market established with the Act of Union in 1801 and signalled that Northern Ireland would be permanently left behind in the EU single market for goods and in an all-Ireland market.

Over the last few years the DUP has focussed in securing mitigations to these arrangements.

The first was the ‘Stormont brake’ provided in the Windsor framework – which the DUP rejected in any case – and meant that 30 MLAs (fewer than the minimal unionist cohort in Stormont) could veto the automatic introduction of new updates to EU directives and goods regulations.

The second – a new mechanism agreed in recent negotiations – is an ‘applicability motion’ meaning that any new EU legislation on goods will only apply automatically in Northern Ireland if it receives cross-community support.

In both cases, the legislation goes back to Westminster for further consideration and potential arbitration directly with the EU through a joint committee.

Should the UK government decide to refuse to adopt changes to EU goods law in Northern Ireland, to avoid restrictions on the free movement of goods from GB to NI, then it will result in a breach in the integrity of the single market for goods on the island of Ireland. Theoretically the EU may then demand the Irish government impose controls on its side of the border with Northern Ireland.

It remains to be seen whether Westminster will choose to aggravate the EU and Irish government in this way and also whether the EU will simply choose to turn a ‘blind-eye’ to such breaches. That said, the potential is for an increasing trend towards divergence of NI and EU goods standards and the possibility of two trade borders. There is also potential for disagreements to escalate to retaliation within wider trading arrangements between the UK and EU – not something wanted by the ruling elite in London, Dublin, or Brussels.

The critics of the DUP have challenged the fact that these new mechanisms are entirely dependent on the political priorities of the Westminster government and subject to arbitration by a joint committee. Others have pointed out that if both Westminster and Brussels both changes their goods standards that neither may apply in Northern Ireland leaving the region open to ‘tri-vergence’ where NI goods are neither compatible with either UK or EU standards.

Despite such prospects, in one of his last political acts, Jeffrey Robinson engineered his party’s high-profile use of the applicability motion to frustrate adoption of new EU laws extending geographical protection provisions to craft and industrial goods (they already apply to foods and drink). Naturally the motion divided the Assembly with nationalists and the cross-community neo-liberal, pro-EU Alliance party voting against and the unionists voting for.

While the significance of the issue was minor – it was important for the DUP leadership to counter the narrative of its hardline critics that they had got nothing. In the aftermath of the vote, Jeffrey Donaldson appeared validated, but it was to be a very short-lived success.

Prospect for continued instability

In our recent perspectives’ documents, Militant Left highlighted that the new Stormont Executive will continue to be a government in crisis. While we didn’t anticipate the recent crisis which engulfed the DUP, the experience of the last two months confirms our prognosis.

It was the power of organised workers taking mounting strike action which partly forced the parties to return to government to deliver partial pay improvements. The working-class has recently felt its power and will use it again as necessary to defend public services and pay.

Stormont’s ability to make working-class people pay the price of resolving their crises is contested.