openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Is the DUP trying to bring down power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

The hardline Unionist party has never liked working with Nationalists. Does it want to end the Good Friday Agreement altogether?

Peter McColl
18 June 2021, 11.55am
Edwin Poots has resigned the DUP leadership
Sam Boal, Live News. All rights reserved

The latest leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Edwin Poots, resigned last night after a bungled nomination process for the first minister of Northern Ireland position left most of his party members voting against him.

In the end, Poots got his way and the DUP’s Paul Givan was appointed first minister, despite his party’s MPs and AMs voting 24-4 against nominating him. Poots had been in post for less than a month.

It looks like Northern Ireland’s largest party is at war with itself. But it points to a deeper reality. The DUP has never supported the Good Friday Agreement: it was the only major party not to agree to the peace settlement in 1998, and has always been ambivalent – at best – about it.

In particular, the DUP never liked sharing power in Northern Ireland with nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin. It now seems that many of its members are trying to end the power-sharing agreement altogether.

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In 2003, the then DUP leader, Ian Paisley, said: “The truth is that the so-called Good Friday agreement has the potential that those who signed up to it wanted – the potential destruction of this province, this place in the United Kingdom … Unless we destroy the agreement, we will be destroyed forever.”

And the compromises that the party has made since then are being unravelled by the contradictions of Brexit.

Border crisis

There are only three broad ways to solve the border crisis that Brexit has unleashed in Northern Ireland in the immediate future.

Firstly, to continue the current arrangement, under the Northern Ireland Protocol. This means a regulatory border in the Irish Sea – effectively, a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Secondly, an arrangement whereby the whole of the UK is in the customs union. This means that there would be no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but it would also curtail the UK’s ability to undercut the EU on workers’ rights and environmental standards – a key aim of Boris Johnson’s Brexit. This arrangement was the essence of Theresa May’s (failed) Chequers plan of 2018.

Thirdly, a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. And as there’s no way that Sinn Féin would sign up to that, it would effectively require shutting nationalists out of the governance of Northern Ireland, and breaching the international treaty signed with the Irish government as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended 30 years of political violence by delivering power-sharing. It meant there would have to be nationalists in Northern Ireland’s government, that the days of the unionists having a monopoly on power were over.

It is worth noting that the DUP opposed the agreement on the grounds that it required nationalists to be involved in the running of Northern Ireland. The ‘Democratic’ in the party’s name refers to the belief that democracy means majority rule, which excludes minorities – even if those minorities make up more than 40% of the population.

Since 1998, the DUP has been a largely unhappy participant in the institutions that the treaty established, focusing mainly on funnelling government money to supporters through programmes such as the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal – which paid people £1.08 for every £1 of woodchip they burned – and led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2017.

The party only entered government after signing up to the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, which devolved policing and justice, but left the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement in place.

The only explanation is that the DUP believes it can get the British government to renege on the Good Friday Agreement

It is difficult to understand what the DUP has been trying to achieve with its support for Brexit, opposition to the Chequers deal (which would have preserved the territorial relationship with Great Britain that Northern Ireland enjoyed during the UK’s membership of the EU) and then voting for the 2019 election that delivered Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit that the DUP now so vociferously oppose.

The only explanation that makes any sense is that the party believes it can get the British government to renege on the Good Friday Agreement. That seems more likely with a Tory government in place, than with Labour, since it was a Labour administration under Tony Blair that negotiated the peace deal.

It may mean the abolition of the power-sharing executive at Stormont. But it would deliver what the DUP wants: an end to Irish nationalists being in government and a severe setback for hopes of a united Ireland.

Of course, if the UK reneged on an international treaty, it would make the country even more isolated internationally than it is at present. Although that’s hardly a concern for the DUP – or even, perhaps, many British voters – it would result in yet more impoverishment in the name of British chauvinism.

The obvious solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol is a deal that looks like the one May put forward. That would also solve the problems that agricultural and seafood exporters are currently experiencing. It would be deliverable and, with the chances of a trade deal with the US diminished by President Joe Biden’s election, might offer the best way to maximise market access for British businesses.

The threat is that Brexit tough-talking appears very popular with Johnson’s voters, many of whom seem prepared to sacrifice both their own prosperity and peace in Northern Ireland in order to achieve the hardest possible Brexit. While the British electorate has the right to choose poverty, it does not have the right to plunge Northern Ireland back into violence.

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