There are three issues to consider when we ask whether the DUP might return to Stormont while there is a Conservative Government in Westminster.
First and foremost is the way in which the NI Protocol undermines the economic harmony of the United Kingdom and breaches the fundamentals of the Union in doing so. If the DUP returned to Stormont with the NI Protocol largely in place, which is what the Windsor Framework ensures, would unionist voters ask, “What has the DUP achieved?” This could represent 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 relationships that sustained the Union before the Protocol.
Second, the DUP and the Government are also discussing the future funding of the Stormont administration. The DUP claims that the Barnett formula no longer works, and the Conservative Government may be wondering how much money it will take to get Stormont up and running. The other local Parties will welcome any money. In the past, the executive has mismanaged money, so that there is never enough funding, thanks to inefficiency and poor management. These have been outlined again and again in Audit Office and other reports, but the lessons never seem to be learned.
In any case, the DUP will be wary of allowing any return to be framed in terms of money alone. The broad unionist electorate would rightly ask ‘what about the Protocol?”. How much is the Union worth? Is the fundamental issue ‘the cash’ or ‘the Union’.
Which places added emphasis on the future of the NI Protocol. Perhaps the third and biggest single issue is one of ‘trust’.
Those who blame unionism for “Brexit” and take the attitude that the Protocol is the DUP’s fault, miss too many points to address them all here. The central point though is that while the DUP may have supported leaving the EU, the only ask subsequently was that Northern Ireland leave on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
Theresa May’s solution failed because with her backstop NI’s separation was used as a means of retaining close (sometimes described as dynamic) alignment with the EU for the whole UK. Had the case been made for a closer relationship, albeit outside the political Union, May might have succeeded had she not included the backstop, but she lacked the political intelligence or capital to be able to make the case for a softer departure.
Along the line of Conservative Party leaders Liz Truss was willing to bring forward and conclude the Protocol Bill, offering a brief glimmer of light for unionism. We’ll never know.
Underlying the unionist electoral antipathy to a return to Stormont without resolution of the Protocol is a massive distrust of the willingness of the Conservative Government to deliver on promises.
Added to which there is the political calculation of trusting a Conservative Government that can promise what it wants but is unlikely to have time, even it was believed to have the inclination, to deliver on any promise.
Reflecting on the political conference season it’s hard to find a clear sense that the Conservative Party can deliver on anything!
Conservative Home Editor, Paul Goodman, provided a series of articles from the Conservative Conference, each with an air of tired resignation, one of which ended: “Do the Conservatives really want to win? Or are they, in their heart of hearts, ready for Sir Kier Starmer?”
After thirteen years of Conservative Government, Tom McTague on Unherd.com wrote a report from the conference: “At every turn, with each new PM, they have succeeded in making things worse… They promised national sovereignty and put a border down the Irish Sea; to reduce immigration only to let it double; and to stop the “chaos” threatened by Labour only to then turn round after 13 years and say they haven’t managed to change anything.”
Sharing a stage with EU President Von der Leyen to announce his Windsor Framework agreement might have seemed, in Sunak’s head, a positive early opportunity to project the Prime Minister as someone who gets things done. Since then, there have been endless delays and efforts to soften the roll-out of the framework as the practical realities forced themselves to the fore. It is almost as if the agenda of the moment is to delay the full impact of what Sunak agreed until it will be someone else’s problem.
Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, epitomises the dysfunction and discombobulation of this Conservative Government. At a Parliamentary Committee, he was unable to say whether what he had already said in public was true, untrue, or whether his words had been dashed against the rocks of reality. All the worse when consumers know, from experience, that his previous statement was patently untrue.
When a government minister cannot stand over his own statements on a significant aspect of government policy, and remains in post, then ‘trust’ in that Government to deliver would be wholly misplaced. As with the Windsor Framework, whatever the Government thinks it is doing, its ability to deliver on its promises to the people of Northern Ireland falls well short by any measure.
For the DUP to accept the ‘promise’ of legislation on the Union would be an act of incredible foolishness and an utter triumph of misplaced hope over the hard lessons of experience. The electorate would rightly ask whether a DUP that accepts a Conservative PM’s promises at face value is credible or worthy of confidence in delivering anything much itself.
A version of this article appeared in the Belfast News Letter on Tuesday 31 November 2023.