The New Year in Northern Ireland has opened in much the same way as the previous one, DUP Premier Paul Givan warning Stormont collapse is ‘inevitable’ unless changes are made post-Brexit regulations for the region. When the Northern Ireland Protocol entered into force in January 2021, it created new controls on goods arriving from Britain. This sparked protests from trade unionists, who felt the arrangements separated them from the rest of the UK and undermined the union. The resulting unrest led to the resignation of three Unionist party leaders in 2021.
Jeffrey Donaldson emerged from this chaos as the last leader of the DUP and sought to restore order and authority by threatening, ironically, more disorder. He has vowed to withdraw from Stormont unless swift progress is made in the ongoing talks between the EU and the UK on the protocol. Many commentators read this as simply Donaldson ‘speaking loudly’ to win back voters who polls show were deserting the DUP due to his flawed handling of the Brexit process. Speaking in September, Donaldson hinted he would follow through on his threat within weeks. Many weeks have passed since then, and so Givan’s most recent comments appear to be a political posture – providing a substitute for risky action.
Meanwhile, during talks between the UK and the EU, Brussels has offered an important compromise on how the protocol works, but without any reciprocal change from London. Indeed, the government’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, has in fact stepped up British demands by insisting that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) no longer exercise any oversight in Northern Ireland. This was a red line for the EU in terms of ensuring the integrity of any agreement.
Before Christmas, there were signs that London was relinquishing its demands on the ECJ, followed by Frost’s unexpected resignation. He cited broader concerns about the direction of government policy, including regarding COVID, as the reason for his departure, but it seemed Frost just didn’t want to tarnish his reputation as ‘Mr. Brexit’ by overseeing everything. withdrawal of the protocol.
Boris Johnson then made a perhaps astute move by handing over Frost’s portfolio to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, a potential rival for the Tory leadership. By having Truss carry the box of a possible compromise with Brussels, Johnson could now focus on re-establishing his battered authority. However, Truss may decide to follow Johnson’s past example, playing hard on Brexit to win the Tories right and the keys to No.10. This likely explains the DUP’s recent return to saber over protocol, as it tries to influence the path. that Truss takes.
The DUP is also positioning itself for the May elections in Stormont. Recent polls suggest that Sinn Féin will win the most seats – a hammer blow for trade unionists. The feeling that Brexit takes Northern Ireland out of the union and moves towards a united Ireland would be greatly enhanced by Sinn Féin becoming the main party in Northern Ireland. Polls in the Republic of Ireland suggest that Sinn Féin is also on course to win the next election there.
This explains why the DUP is so desperate to rally discouraged Unionist voters, showing that it stands firm on protocol and can influence the outcome of talks between the UK and the EU. The fate of the party is therefore in the hands of Truss. If it refuses to compromise with Brussels, it will undoubtedly gain support from the conservative right. But Truss may also have noted the limited appetite of the wider electorate for continual bickering with the EU.
Truss’s reputation has suffered from recent revelations of fine dining at taxpayer expense in a private club. However, she could try to turn this to her advantage. Truss’s expensive lunch was a professional event, and as Secretary of Commerce at the time she insisted that she hosted representatives from the UK’s biggest trading partner, the US.
Despite his support for the Remain campaign, Truss has become the Brexiteers’ latest darling by negotiating a series of new trade deals. But a US-UK trade deal is the price Brexiteers want the most, and the struggles with Northern Ireland here haven’t helped. President Biden, a proud Irish American, has always made clear his concern that ongoing disputes over the protocol threaten the Good Friday deal.
Perhaps Truss will articulate his own version of ‘Moving Brexit forward’ – finally reaching a deal with the EU that resolves the protocol issue and other outstanding issues. This could be sold to Brexiteers on the basis that it would allow the UK to move on to bigger things, including negotiating a trade deal with the US, with the Biden administration being assured that there had more threat to the peace in Northern Ireland. Or will Truss decide what worked for Johnson will work for her and that the support of Tory backbenchers is all that matters in moving a leadership bid forward?
Whichever Truss chooses, it will certainly have special repercussions for Northern Ireland, and especially DUP. However, what is also clear is that running Northern Ireland at the whims of the DUP or the conservative right does not lead to political stability or leadership longevity.