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DUP difficulties, governance in Northern Ireland, and the 2022 (?) election
The last few months have been turbulent in Northern Ireland, not least for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Within the space of a few short weeks, the party revolted against Arlene Foster as Leader, instated Edwin Poots following its first-ever leadership vote, sought Poots’ resignation, and coronated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Now, the party seems to be on a somewhat steadier footing, with members appearing to be coalescing behind Donaldson’s leadership and that of Deputy Leader, Paula Bradley.
It is far from the case that all settled immediately within the party once Donaldson took over. On his first day in post, veteran DUP member and MLA, Alex Easton, resigned. Days later, DUP councillor Ryan McCready announced his decision to join the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), having initially left the DUP in protest at Foster’s treatment, and subsequent talks with Donaldson about re-joining failing to sufficiently alleviate his lingering concerns.
The party is also still confronted with the same challenges that precipitated the moves to oust Foster – social issues, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Irish language are all on the agenda for Donaldson, with the added difficulty that the impending Assembly election means that time is limited for the party to rebalance and identify clear pathways concerning any of these matters.
As a further challenge, the difficulties that the DUP has faced have not happened in isolation. Rather, and to the party’s detriment, they have happened in direct comparison to developments within the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who also undertook a change in leadership. This was an altogether smoother transition, with Doug Beattie taking the reins from Steve Aiken. With a more socially liberal outlook, a history of cross-party working, and a comparative sense of unity in its ranks, the change at the top of the UUP placed a more intense spotlight on the DUP both in terms of its internal strife and its offering within unionism.
But what has the impact of all this been on political stability in Northern Ireland, and what does it tell us about the potential timing of the next Assembly election, due by May 2022?
Power-Sharing under Pressure?
Usually, political strife within a single party does not tend to lead to existential questions about the institutions it is part of, but the nature of the power-sharing arrangements in place in Northern Ireland means that change in the top brass of one party entails consequences for governance. Whether or not any such changes ultimately result in political instability or a detrimental change in working relationships depends on the parties and personalities present, as well as the wider political climate the changes are happening within.
What can be said with certainty, however, is that the DUP’s recent travails have resulted in a churn of people heading the departments held by the party within the Executive. Donaldson announced details of a ministerial reshuffle on 6th July 2021. Edwin Poots, who led the party for three weeks, will remain in the role of Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and Michelle McIlveen will continue in post as Minister for Education. In the Department for the Economy, Paul Frew, who had been instated by Poots during his short leadership, has been replaced by Gordon Lyons, who is the third person to hold this post in the last two months. Current First Minister, Paul Givan, will continue in this position until the autumn, Poots’ final act as Leader having been to nominate him to the post against the wishes of party colleagues. It has also been signalled that more extensive changes in the DUP ministerial team are planned for September.
Donaldson has been clear that he intends to eventually lead the party from Stormont, for which he will need to be co-opted as an MLA in a move that will trigger a by-election in Lagan Valley for his seat in Westminster. However, logistics are prohibitive to this happening easily or soon, as noted by Donaldson himself in a recent interview.
In addition, whether Sinn Féin will be content to nominate a deputy First Minister again at such a point, or will refuse to and hence set the ball in motion towards an early election, is not yet clear.
Political and institutional dynamism are basic requirements where mandatory multi-party coalitions such as that in Northern Ireland are found. Protracted uncertainty about who will hold ministerial positions, not least that of First Minister, does not provide a foundation for a smooth continuation of governance. However, while this shifting sand can enable political posturing to prevail over collective working, especially in the context of an imminent election, turnover of people is not in itself a cause for instability.
There are several more immediate points to consider in terms of Northern Ireland’s political stability, particularly in two key areas – the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement’s Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, and the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA) deal.
Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland
Throughout the recent upheaval, the DUP has remained resolute in terms of its opposition to the Protocol, as demonstrated with the announcement last week that the party will apply seven tests to the UK Government's proposals concerning the Protocol. This follows the dual agenda announced by Poots in June 2021, and Foster’s 5-point plan to undermine the Protocol in February 2021.
This latest strategy becomes an intrinsic problem in that there isn’t a clear way in which any changes to the UK’s approach could meet all the criteria it outlines while still adhering to the basic premise of what Brexit sought to achieve. In pushing for the removal of the Protocol in this way, the DUP is effectively teeing itself up to take the UK Government and the EU to task come what may, but without clearly defining what alternative routes can be pursued. This conundrum will come to a head as the details announced on 21st July of the UK Government’s updated approach to the NI Protocol are processed.
Recent legal action has also made the DUP’s fight against the Protocol all the more difficult. It was argued in the High Court in Belfast that the Protocol was unlawful on five grounds, with the UK Government emphasising parliamentary sovereignty in the passage of Brexit-related legislation at the core of its counterargument. In short, the challenge did not succeed on any of the five grounds pursued, and the Protocol was found to be lawful.
While this is set to be appealed, it nonetheless introduces a new dynamic in how political assertions concerning the Protocol interact with its legal and practical realities in Northern Ireland. For unionist leaders in particular, how this is navigated will be significant going into the next election. How all of these elements will dovetail in the time ahead remains to be seen, but the stage has certainly not been set for this to be straightforward.
New Decade, New Approach
Implementation of the NDNA deal remains an ongoing source of pressure on relationships within the Executive, and it is on this matter that the greatest potential exists currently for an early election to be called. Such is the extent of the contention surrounding the Irish language aspect of the package of cultural measures agreed within it that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, has committed to the relevant legislation being passed in Westminster should it not be initiated in Northern Ireland by October 2021.
For both the DUP and Sinn Féin, there is something of a strategic benefit in this being dealt with at Westminster, but at the same time, it fundamentally undermines both parties and the institutions for it to happen in this way. For the DUP, passing this legislation in Stormont will be seen as somehow acquiescing to Sinn Féin interests; for Sinn Féin, failure to deliver the legislation after it was agreed in NDNA will fundamentally erode any benefits that will be possible electorally from continuing to work as normal with the DUP. In short, there is no easy way to resolve this matter without a softening of positions somewhere in the mix, and that is not likely to emerge with an election impending.
A difficulty also remains in that several mechanisms introduced within the deal to enhance the resilience and sustainability of Northern Ireland’s political institutions remain to be put into legal effect. This legislation is currently working its way through Westminster, however, should the institutions collapse before its passage, it will mean that there will be minimal protections in place to mitigate against another lengthy hiatus, such as was seen between 2017 and 2020. Protracted tension within Executive relationships will only exacerbate difficulties that might exist should such a scenario arise again.
The next Assembly election will happen no later than May 2022, but there is some speculation that it will be as early as autumn, in part due to the elements highlighted above. However – at least as far as things stand currently – there is no evident strategic or political incentive for either the DUP or Sinn Féin to see one held that soon. For the DUP, arguably even May 2022 will not provide enough time for the party to recover from its recent travails.
It is not the case that the DUP’s internal party strife itself presents a challenge to power-sharing. While the churn of individuals within the Executive presents practical challenges, and the protracted uncertainty about the First Minister position creates an implicit element of ongoing uncertainty, an imminent collapse of the institutions on this basis alone is unlikely.
Power-sharing structures are designed to withstand pressure, and where political will for their continued functioning is present, these complex arrangements are particularly resilient. At present, there is no clear intention or incentive for an imminent collapse of Northern Ireland’s institutions. While political posturing has at times indicated the contrary, from a purely strategic perspective, there is little to be gained for either Sinn Féin or the DUP in being the side to bring this about.
That does not mean to say that this will not change. Should a tactical benefit in pursuing such a route emerge, it will be quickly seized, and recent events within the DUP have changed the paradigm for what the perfect alignment of circumstances for this will be.
It will be more surprising than not to reach May before the next election is held, but as things stand, the conditions are not ripe for it to happen just yet.