The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has set an agenda for political turmoil in the north of Ireland with a threat to pull out of the North’s political institutions if his demands on the Irish protocol are not met.
In a speech on Thursday, Donaldson said his ministers will resign if changes to the Brexit deal on trade across the Irish sea are not delivered within weeks. That would trigger the collapse of the power-sharing Executive in Belfast and likely hasten an Assembly election.
Donaldson also announced his party’s immediate withdrawal from cross-border political institutions established on the island of Ireland, in violation of the Ministerial code under the Good Friday peace agreement.
“If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the protocol in its present form, then the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold such office,” Donaldson said in a speech in Belfast.
The protocol was agreed by London and Brussels as a way to avoid a remilitarisation of the British-imposed border through Ireland. It achieves that by offering a special status to traders in the north of Ireland, who remain in the EU Single Market while also accessing the British market, subject to new export controls.
There was unanimity across the political spectrum that the DUP leader’s move was an attempt to shore up his party’s support after it recently lost ground to both the Ulster Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice.
Sinn Féin lead Mary Lou McDonald said the DUP was “in panic mode” and the move to threaten the institutions was “a reckless, irresponsible and short-sighted election stunt”.
“They are threatening the stability of the political institutions when we are in the midst of the Covid pandemic, when the Tories are putting families and workers under pressure with more cuts, and when there is big work to do on the issues that matter to people’s everyday lives – on hospital waiting lists, on schools, on housing and on jobs, and on rebuilding our economy,” she said.
“They are focused on their own narrow self-interest ahead of the interests of workers, families and local businesses. Unionism has lost its political majority, the DUP is in disarray and their vote is in decline.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also criticised the DUP threats, accusing the party of holding the north of Ireland to ransom. He said the DUP steps were based on “selfish party political self-interest”.
Donaldson looked increasingly isolated after the Ulster Unionist Party rejected the move. Party leader Doug Beattie said his party wanted to provide ‘pragmatic solutions and engagement’ to resolve the outstanding disputes.
“We will engage constructively and put forward practical solutions as we seek to replace the protocol,” he said.
“We continue to lobby rather than threaten. Unionism needs to show confidence in its own abilities. Now is not the time to retreat to the trenches.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long also criticised the DUP threats, characterising it as “cynical party political posturing”.
The DUP’s slump in the polls comes ahead of an Assembly election due to take place next year. Voters in the North universally blamed it for a chaotic Brexit, leading to former party leader Arlene Foster, and her short-lived successor, Edwin Poots both getting ousted in heaves which left the party bitterly divided.
Donaldson’s party is now coming in at only 13% behind both its unionist rivals. Even if that was reversed, the same polling company shows Sinn Féin set to take over as the largest party, meaning Michelle O’Neill would become First Minister while the DUP leader would be relegated to the post of Deputy First Minister.
That would come as a major psychological blow and humiliation to the DUP’s hardline Assembly members, who might then be expected to force a withdrawal from the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in any event.
The 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that “no positive agenda” is being served by the DUP now refusing to operate the political institutions.
And visiting Belfast this week, Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, urged Donaldson and other politicians to “dial down the rhetoric”.
He warned than any attempt to renegotiate the protocol would create instability, and that the post-Brexit agreement needed to be implemented in full.
Outside the college, prominent loyalist campaigners could only muster around 20 protestors. Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson said the event was held to protest against the presence of an “EU agitator”.