DUP divisions put return of Stormont in doubt
7 August 2023
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
It was only a few months ago that political commentators were confidently predicting the restoration of the Stormont institutions by the autumn. However, with negotiations dragging on and public divisions opening up in the DUP, that prospect has dramatically receded. The timeline for the return of the devolved government has now drifted further to after the next UK general election. There is increasing speculation that it may not be back at all.
The primary cause of this lowering of expectations is the state of the DUP. Since the unveiling of the Windsor Framework in February of this year the DUP have been putting off giving a definitive response. They have convened a panel to examine the Framework and report back to the leadership; they have also submitted proposals to the British government on how the Framework could be amended more to its liking. However, none of this has been made public. All this suggests that, on the question of the Framework, the DUP has been making little progress in its negotiations with the government. Indeed, all the indications, such as the construction of the infrastructure to facilitate the Framework, are that the UK is committed to making it work. There won’t be a reopening of negotiations, or the introduction of any legislation, that would put this at risk. If this demonstrates the relative weakness of the British government in relation to the EU it also shows the absolute weakness of the DUP, and unionism in general, in relation to the British government. The DUP’s demands will not be met. The NI Protocol, albeit substantially reformed, will remain in place.
Given the DUP’s hard-line stance on the NI Protocol over the last couple of years, which has enabled them to maintain public support and remain unified, it would represent a huge u-turn for the party to return to Stormont. It also runs the risk of a major split. The extent of the divisions within the DUP were laid bare in a recent statement to party members by Jeffery Donaldson in which he claimed that unnamed figures were briefing against the leadership. Though it is reported that Donaldson personally favours a return to Stormont his overriding priority will be to avoid a split. The dilemma he faces reflects not just opposition to the NI Protocol but to a broader shift within unionism against the whole principle of power sharing. It may not be a majority but it is substantial enough to hold sway. The prospect of DUP ministers serving under a Sinn Fein First Minister only adds to this pressure.
While nationalist parties have also been part of negotiations, they have been really quite marginal with the primary focus being on persuading the DUP. Not that they had much to say, apart from appeals to the British government and the DUP to get the devolved institutions up and running. It doesn't seem to matter to Sinn Fein what programme a new Executive would be implementing so long as it was in existence and headed up by Michelle O’Neill. This would be enough to show an advance for Irish nationalism. Indeed, such symbolic demonstrations of nationalism being on top, is what Sinn Fein’s politics have largely boiled down to.
It is also notable that the Irish government has been sidelined with the Taoiseach reduced to making appeals to the British government to adopt a “common strategy”. This is a long way from the predictions made in the wake of the collapse of the Executive that what would follow would be some form of joint authority. At that time nationalists vowed that there would be no return to direct rule but this is what we have had for the last sixteen months.
The British government has asserted control over the North through a form of direct rule in which senior civil servants administer within a budget and policy framework set by the Secretary of State. What is also clear is the British government has a clear agenda for the transformation of the economy and public services in the north of Ireland. This envisages an economy that is primarily oriented to attracting private investment and a significant scaling down of public provision. Policies that flow from this are real cuts in public spending; privatisation, lower wages levels; and increasing local taxes and charges. The budget announced by Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, which reduces spending by £800 million over the next two years, is a significant step along that path with the consequences already being felt as Stormont departments scramble to make savings.
This is not a negotiating ploy by the British government to put pressure on the DUP. This is the plan for the long-term future of the North. It will also be the plan for any new Stormont executive that will inevitably be working within the same framework. That funding has not been discussed in the recent negotiations shows that the local parties have already accepted this. It makes the claim by Sinn Fein MP, John Finucane, that a return to Stormont is "the only defence our community has against Tory austerity", particularly risible.
The receding prospect of the return of Stormont represents a serious dilemma for the trade union movement in the North. While there was industrial action earlier this year around the issue of public sector pay it didn’t amount to much more than protest or lobbying activity. There was no sense that the trade union leadership had a strategy to win these disputes. That would have involved, at the very least, an escalation of industrial action over the weeks and months following the initial one-day strike by civil servants and teachers in April. What we have had since then are symbolic protests directed at NIO ministers coupled with appeals for the restoration of the devolved institutions. The assumption here is that a new Stormont executive, backed by a financial package from the British treasury, would be able to resolve issues arising from the cost-of-living crisis. What is meant by resolve, from the trade union perspective, is not pay rises that match inflation but mitigations that cushion the impact of the falling value of wages. This has been the position of ICTU and it is consistent with its promotion of a form of social partnership in the North where trade union officials are given a place within the structures of Stormont.
With increasing doubts over the return of Stormont trade union leaders are now flailing around for something to keep themselves relevant. This has become farcical with the leader of one public sector union warning over the prospect of a “general strike” in the autumn. This is just militant posturing. There is no prospect of trade unions launching anything approaching a general strike. At most there will be another one-day strike across the public sector that might cover a slightly wider range of workers. This will not be substantially different to what took place earlier in the year and will rerun the familiar cycle of sporadic industrial action and appeals for the restoration of Stormont. Even if there is greater militancy it will still be allied to a very conservative objective. A general strike in its true sense would challenge the political establishment, but trade unions in the north do not hold, and have never held, that position. They have always aligned themselves to the status quo, whether that be old style partition or the Good Friday Agreement. This has been the historic weakness of the labour movement and the numerous campaigns it has led.
Whether it’s presided over by the Stormont Executive or the British government workers in the north are facing an unprecedented assault or their living conditions. It is also the case that the organisations that represent workers, trade unions and parties of the left, are severely lacking when it comes to mounting any sort of defence. Part of this is down to organisational weakness but the greater part is their political support for institutions that have proven to be hostile to labour. Until workers’ break out of this framework and assert their own organisational and political independence there can be no effective opposition to the attacks they are facing.