The DUP doesn’t gamble, and hasn’t a death-wish.

Local Government in Northern Ireland is in essence little more than selecting people to ‘manage’  bin collections, burying the dead, providing leisure facilities, issuing fines for dog fouling and litter, and planning; maybe some other bits and pieces, but few notice or care. No surprise that reporting by the local media rarely focuses on local government performance. Instead it continues on report crudely through in the prism of constitutional division and sectarian headcount.

The recent May election was no different.

Sinn Fein is now the Party with the largest number of Councillors in local government in Northern Ireland. To read or listen to some of the press and commentariat anyone would be forgiven for thinking that meant it had won a majority of all seats. It did not. It did hoover up a bit more of the nationalist aligned ‘independent’ vote and captured quite a bit of the SDLP electorate.

In an election where the vote can generally be relied upon to be higher than other parts of the UK, Sinn Fein still managed to get its vote out. The grievance this time was that those nasty Unionists were stopping Michelle O’Neill from becoming joint First Minister in Northern Ireland. Nothing to do with local government, and not true, but that didn’t seem to matter.

Hardly surprising, when for weeks preceding the election all focus was on why the DUP wasn’t restoring the Executive at Stormont and getting ‘back to work’! In all this there was absolutely no focus on Unionist objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. It was all about the DUP ‘having’ to go back to the Executive, enabling the Assembly to get back up and running. Just because.

It is a fact that the DUP is the stumbling block to the restoration of the Stormont Assembly and Executive. It has every good reason not to return to Stormont until issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol are satisfactorily addressed.

There are a range of reasons being given as to why the DUP ought to enable the restoration of the Stormont institutions though, other than the DUP itself, few commentators or media seem to believe issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol are at the centre of this obstinacy.

Starting with the immediate aftermath of the local government elections, the first reason provided by commentators is that the TUV gained only a few additional councillors and the overall TUV vote fell from the 2022 Assembly election. It was fear of the TUV that made the DUP ‘hard-line, apparently. Therefore with the TUV ‘beaten’ the DUP could more easily consider a return to Stormont, we were told. 

1.  The DUP has seen off the threat of the TUV

Not quite. In the previous local government election, the TUV gained a number of seats in Mid & East Antrim and North Down & Ards Councils. In the recent election, the Party lost its seats in a constituency with the one of the lowest turnouts in Northern Ireland, North Down & Ards, despite being close – same as with the Assembly, it is not transfer friendly. However, in the council election the TUV gained its first seats in Belfast, Causeway Coast & Glens and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Councils. That seems as if it has broadened its electoral base into far a greater number and more ‘traditional’ Unionist areas than previously. If the councillors’ elected can use their positions to gain profile, this offers a far greater threat to the DUP than before. The TUV ‘threat’ still lurks, menacingly. Jim Alister retains the ability to hold the DUP’s feet to the fire.

2.  The Windsor Framework resolves the issues of the NI Protocol.

No, it doesn’t. The Windsor Framework is simply an agreement on how to implement the NI Protocol. The NI Protocol will start to be fully implemented this Autumn, as agreed, unless it isn’t. The only pressure on the Conservative Government and possibly the EU (though the EU doesn’t seem to have cared, as the Irish Government has cheered it on) is that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is seen to be broken if the Stormont Assembly isn’t up and running.

It is clear, as articulated by Jeffrey Donaldson in the House of Commons, that the border in the Irish Sea is no more acceptable to Unionists than a border along the EU’s land border would be to nationalism. Without that being accepted, the GFA is meaningless and a principal plank on which the Northern Ireland Protocol was founded to achieve is actually as unachievable as the Protocol is unworkable.

Unionists are unlikely to start talking about the ‘spirit of the Protocol’, to believe in something that isn’t reality, in the same way many (nationalism) talk of the ‘spirit of the Good Friday Agreement’, inferred, the reality of a promise of gold at the end of an Irish rainbow.

In the wave of optimism and fine words after the Rishi and Ursula show of unity at Windsor, the fog thickens around what is actually going to happen as the Protocol tightens this Autumn 2023. Previously supportive national supermarket retailers have been scathing. Parcel rules will become an unwelcome bureaucracy within the United Kingdom.

When the Protocol was first enacted, the process for sending goods into Northern Ireland was so unworkable that around 80% of goods that should have been within the Protocol were under ‘grace periods’ ie largely exempt from the Protocol arrangements. Of the rest, there were still major issues around the bureaucracy mostly on level of form-filling required. What the Windsor Framework has done is reduce the number of boxes to be ticked to around 20% of what was required previously.

Not mentioned is that that the 80% of goods that were previously exempt will now be back under the unworkable scheme. Maybe in some management consultancy world the reduction of the number of boxes to be ticked makes what was previously unworkable magically seamlessly streamlined and efficient, that the added bureaucracy and cost across the board is ‘an improvement’.

To people with common sense, fewer boxes to tick doesn’t sound like much of a solution to an unworkable process.

Parcels are going to be custom checked, with GB-based Post Office counter staff left in the invidious position of working out if the person standing in front of them is or is not a relative of the intended recipient, or whether the parcel is being sent to a customer (end consumer) of a business rather than a customer (another business). What could go wrong?

Meanwhile, on Amazon, the number of items that are not deliverable to Northern Ireland is visibly increasing, particularly in the Marketplace area where retailers themselves fulfil orders generally. Elsewhere the cost of delivery to NI is increasing, or being applied where GB delivery would be free.

Forget ‘there will be no border in the Irish Sea’, or even that ‘there will no sense of a border in the Irish Sea’.  This will be back to the full unworkable Irish Sea Border in the north channel mess, unless a lot of people look the other way or delay implementation. With a couple of months before the full process starts to kick in, it is clear no-one knows how this is going to work.

As it stands, four of the main Northern Ireland political parties think this is not going to be a problem. Perhaps they would like to address how the myriad of problems outlined in the recent House of Lords report might be resolved? Full report with list of outstanding issues here.

Stormont would be useless in addressing the severe challenges of the full implementation of the NI Protocol, just as it has been useless in addressing every other significant issue this past twenty-five years; every difficult decision for Stormont being duly pitched back to Westminster.

Why would the DUP want to be sitting in regional Government, with no power to either mitigate or roll back the rigorous implementation of a Protocol almost entirely as the EU intended, with the EU making the Rules while the UK Government sits on its hands?

3.  Because the cost-of-living crisis

Nothing, nothing would be done by Stormont that would make one jot of difference about the cost of living. Not bank rates, not food prices, not anything unless it is already thought through and paid for from Westminster. Despite all the squealing as energy prices rose, adequate support was provided by Westminster in time.

Stormont could do nothing about bank rates except write a few letters expressing blah-de-blah, and absolutely nothing on mortgage relief – which would be the right thing, but none of the Parties would be able to say that because their tightly clutched pearls would be choking them.

If the Parties think that the cost of food and goods is getting ever more expensive, they aren’t seeing the costs and scarcity heading their way from this Autumn as the NI Protocol is fully and rigorously implemented – albeit with at least some of the forms having fewer boxes to tick. Prices will rise as costs of doing business with Northern Ireland increase, or goods will simply disappear from the shelves or as an option to buy online.

In any case, the solution so far, offered by other Parties, is that Westminster needs to increase the NI budget, etc.

4.  It isn’t about the Protocol, it is about the money.

No previous crisis seems to have been resolved without Westminster promising in some way to splash the cash. There is talk this time round of £1 billion or more being on the table. The DUP have talked about changing the process by which funds are allocated to the NI budget – moving away from the long-standing Barnett formula for matching, proportionately, spending announced at Westminster into the NI Budget.

For the DUP there would be two dangers in allowing any return to Stormont to be framed in terms of financial gains. First, how much is the Union worth? Is the fundamental issue ‘the cash’ or ‘the Union’.

The fundamental issue of the Protocol is about the Union. Returning with the NI Protocol largely in place, which is what the Windsor Framework has assured, would have unionist voters ask what has the DUP achieved. It would be a return to the roll-over Robinson era, whose time has passed. The DUP vote, its mandate, is currently based on not returning to Stormont without restoring the equilibrium of Union relationships before the Protocol. Money won’t fix that.

The second danger is whether the DUP would gain any political return on a claim to having secured extra funding. Every other Party is making a pitch for more cash for Stormont, ergo every other Party will claim success for securing the extra cash. The DUP should know there is zero political gain for securing that extra cash, with good reason.

Does anyone recall the specifics of the funds relating to the 2017 Confidence & Supply arrangement with May’s Conservative Government? The DUP ‘secured’ £1 billion additional funding for Stormont, albeit with no Stormont existing for most of the period of the arrangement. Something broadband network, something health, something infrastructure? (Yes, all eleven local government areas are in the top twenty areas for UK superfast broadband coverage. Point is no one recalls or cares the source of some of the funding towards that coverage, or connects the C&S to improved broadband, because coverage is not the same as take-up and many just don’t understand that broadband improvement is cable infrastructure related.)

Where funding was spent as intended, few will recall on what, where or when.  One item though, yet unspent, stands out. It was agreed that funding from the Confidence and Supply arrangement assured the spend for the long-awaited York Street Interchange – a crucial piece of engineering to reduce congestion and smooth traffic flow through Belfast between motorway systems. Today, it is much as it was in 2017. The Minister, from the SDLP in the resurrected Stormont Assembly 2020, further prevaricated.

The money was available, but the Minister found there was a need for further consultation: for ‘placemaking’. Indeed. More likely, delay enabled the SDLP to prevent the DUP making political capital out of securing the funding to build the York Street Interchange as a positive outcome of its deal with the Conservative Government. Particularly relevant as the 2022 election loomed.

This should tell the DUP that unless there is a very specific programme for Government, with clear gains from any additional funding, that any resumed Stormont will bank the cash and continue business as usual. Business as usual was mostly the other Executive Parties ensuring that whatever the DUP wanted or proposed they would be against, or the decision-making prolonged and debate shifted to ensure there would be no credit for the DUP in any delivery.

Whatever the question, money is not an answer that would serve the DUP well.

The DUP might be accused of many things. Having a death-wish isn’t one of them.

When the defining issue of not being in Stormont is the Northern Ireland Protocol, no amount of money could ever justify the resurrection of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

For the DUP there are a range of considerations that suggest there is no compelling reason to enable the restoration of Stormont without the Protocol being more mutual enforcement than EU brickbat.

  • The TUV remains a latent threat, with wider representation following the council elections.
  • The Windsor Framework makes the Northern Ireland Protocol ‘a little less unworkable’ at best. There is no way the DUP can be in Stormont and having to administer the many issues that will arise as the rigorous implementation of all aspects of the Protocol take effect. The blame will be reflected back on it with every Protocol problem it highlights – if anyone wants to imagine what that would be like, it would be like a Reg Empey in the ear every single day.
  • The ability to do anything additional at Stormont that does not require funding from Westminster, not least anything meaningful with regard to the “cost-of-living crisis”, is zero.
  • There is no amount of money that will bring either political gain from more funds into the bottomless pit that is the Stormont budget or resolution to the core issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Add to all this, as Nigel Dodds articulated at length, there is nothing the British Government is doing currently that meets the DUP’s own seven tests. Gavin Robinson put it more succinctly:

This echoes what Donaldson had said earlier:

Which is a version of what was directed at the UK-EU Parliamentary Assembly before that:

What is remarkable from Northern Ireland ‘commentators’ is that views on the DUP are always couched in terms of Jeffrey having to deal with the ‘hard-liners’, where Nigel Dodds would be categorised. Yet there is a clear consistency across Donaldson, Robinson and Dodds.

It might be fair to say that there are some DUP MLAs who would go back to Stormont tomorrow, though ask any of them what they might achieve in Stormont and the answer would be lacking any clear purpose beyond ‘being there’.

The mood within the unionist electorate that votes, a ‘vibe’ as defined in the recent Political OD Podcast, reflected in the strength of vote in the council elections, is one of broad support for the DUP’s current stance on staying out of Stormont until issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol are addressed. That vote was in the face of relentless campaigning against the DUP by all and sundry; locally, nationally, and some internationally putting their oar in.

In the News Letter, Owen Polley suggests, despite best efforts by some to present otherwise, the most recent polling confirms core DUP electoral strength lies in ‘not’ restoring Stormont for the time being at least.

To not just roll over on the Protocol and return to Stormont, but to do a double flip back somersault volte-face with that return would be a step of unbelievable electoral bravery.

The DUP knows that it isn’t entirely trusted by many who currently vote for the Party. Despite political strength in seats, and the weakness of its once rival UUP and the inability to date of the TUV to break through, the vote it holds is soft. A great many hold their nose to vote DUP, on the Union. There are many others who don’t, and for now do not vote at all, but just might if the DUP proves its ability to deliver on the Union. These are testing times for the DUP. For once, the DUP will need to stand firm.

These are the electoral considerations the DUP must ponder. It must believe that there is a possibility that with Stormont not restored there may be an election at the end of January, something it would not fear, unless it was facing all the Protocol issues with no obvious means of responding. The UUP may not be so sanguine. There is a Westminster election in 2024, and it could not be seen to lose any seats.

The Conservative Party would have to more than promise in the coming months. There is no reason to believe the present Conservative Government could be trusted on delivering anything. It may not be that an incoming Labour Government could be more trusted, but it may be sensible to wait and see if there is a more favourable political environment in which to act decisively.

The DUP has significant calls to make going forward.

It is possible that there is a decision by the DUP to return to Stormont, and that all the above is regarded as too alarmist with hindsight. Go back ‘at any cost’ might well be the favoured option: live with subsequent events, however the dice rolls, and make the best of it. It is a gamble that may pay off or, equally, won’t. If the gamble fails, the Democratic Unionist Party is over. It would be about as trusted by the Unionist electorate as is Rishi Sunak or Chris Heaton-Harris. The end may not be immediate, but the chances of surviving whole would be slim.

There are a host of good reasons for the DUP not to return to Stormont at the present time. There are few justifications for a return to Stormont that would stand the test of time.

The DUP is not a party known for political gambles, and it certainly hasn’t a death-wish.

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