Yesterday’s announcement (1) by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that their First Minister of the power-sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland, Paul Givan, will resign within hours, has been long anticipated by threats made by the party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson. Although it does not necessarily mean the immediate collapse of Stormont, it is very likely to result in a protracted crisis in the institutions.
As the office of the First Minister is held jointly with that of the deputy First Minister, Paul Givan’s resignation automatically means that Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin will also have to step down.
The Stormont Executive will be effectively decapitated – this will immediately mean an end to budgets being agreed, new legislation being passed or either north-south or east-west meetings.
In anticipation of this, the Westminster government has been rushing through legislation to put into effect changes agreed at the time of the Stormont House Agreement two years ago (2) – while these haven’t fully passed they are likely to mean that Stormont Ministers can remain in office for six weeks rather than seven days after the resignation of a First or deputy First Minister.
As a result, this announcement is unlikely to bring forward the date of the scheduled Assembly election which is for May 5th – although the decision will remain in the hands of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. For its part and to capitalise on the political backwash of the decision, Sinn Féin has responded by calling for an early election. The stage is set for what might be a very divisive election.
The DUP have clearly factored in such considerations in making today’s announcement. That said, they have been roundly challenged for the move by their erstwhile government partners in the Executive, including their main rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party.
The decision makes likely an extended period of political paralysis beyond May’s election. With a strong likelihood of Sinn Féin emerging as the largest party in the Assembly – and the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister – tensions among loyalists will only grow. It also comes amid a worsening crisis – mostly driven by the DUP and hardline loyalists – over the imposition of ‘hard sea border checks’ between Britain and Northern Ireland post-Brexit. Any negotiations between the parties to re-establish an Executive, would necessarily also involve a solution to east-west border checks to the DUP satisfaction – would appear both likely to be very extended.
NI protocol port checks halted
The decision followed hard on the heels of the news breaking that the DUP Agricultural Minister, Edwin Poots, claimed legal advice justified his decision to end Agriculture Department staff performing sanitary and phytosanitary checks on goods entering Northern Ireland ports from Britain. These checks were mandated by the Northern Ireland Protocol included in the Brexit deal agreed between the UK government and European Union.
Poots claimed his ministerial direction was justified legally since Sinn Féin had used its veto to prevent border checks from being discussed by the Stormont Executive. Agreement by the Executive collectively was necessary as it was a ‘controversial decision’ requiring cross-Ministerial assent. But the mechanism also offers both unionist and nationalist ministers a veto over a new policy meaning that assent for any checks would never be agreed upon regardless.
While it is unclear whether staff are following the Minister’s orders, early reports appear to confirm that they are. Poots’ actions have yet again left workers facing potential threats and caught in the middle of a dispute over which they have no power or responsibility. Indeed the Loyalist Voice has issued an open letter claiming that civil servants refusing to follow the Minister’s directions would be responsible for a constitutional coup and threatening that the ‘political and societal instability’ that would follow such a coup ‘can not be underestimated’.
The situation is therefore that Northern Ireland, and by extension the United Kingdom, as a whole, is in breach of an international agreement. At the same time, UK government HMRC staff who are conducting checks on duty paid on goods transiting east-west will continue. So despite this latest DUP stunt, some NI Protocol checks will remain in place, regardless.
In the days leading up to this decision (3), the British government indicated that they would not overrule Northern Ireland departments on this matter – opening the door for a further escalation of their dispute with the EU over the operation of the NI Protocol. There is now a possibility that the EU could threaten to withdraw from the entire Brexit deal heralding an immediate hard Brexit which would be a very concerning prospect for the UK government.
For now, however, the stepping back of checks mandated by the NI Protocol raises the prospect that border checks on goods coming from Britain into the Republic of Ireland would be demanded by the EU to protect its internal market. This latest move by Minister Poots, therefore, has also raised tensions among many nationalists for whom this is completely unacceptable.
These latest moves by the DUP are clearly an attempt to recover lost ground over their mishandling of the Brexit process. The party has lost very considerable support to both the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party and to the Ulster Unionists. The latter has adopted a position more aligned to exporting businesses, who obtain unparalleled free and frictionless access to both UK and EU markets. They seek reform of the NI protocol checks as opposed to its outright removal.
The moves by the DUP reinforce support among loyalists paramilitaries who have usually outsourced responsibility for mobilising the Protestant working-class vote for that party. At the same time, it plays into the hands of Sinn Féin who can present themselves as both defending the interests of the business class and Irish national sovereignty. The prospect and undoubted desire of both are therefore for another election fought on the national question – playing to the strengths of either parties.
These announcements also relate to the deepening divisions within the DUP as the new leadership around Jeffrey Donaldson seek to modernise the party – to recover some of the votes lost by the hard-right positions adopted on a range of social and economic issues. As a result of that internal struggle, Edwin Poots – who only weeks ago was the leader of the party and is still a sitting Minister – has effectively been deselected from running in the upcoming Assembly elections. The timing of the announcement of the forthcoming resignation of the First Minister may therefore have been an attempt to cut across any chance he might seek to rally hardliners around himself.
Impact on working households and poor
The decision to collapse the Executive Office at Stormont will leave the government largely rudderless and reopens the prospect of a long period of no government. Stormont was last collapsed by Sinn Féin in a damage limitation exercise in 2016 following the public outrage over the colossal waste of public money in the Renewable Heat Initiative. The suspension lasted three years because the resulting election campaign run by both lead parties was so polarising it undermined any likelihood of power-sharing in the midst of wider Brexit uncertainty.
The legislation before Westminster will ensure departments will continue to function but no new decisions can be taken. At the very least it will be four months until the government is fully restored. The decision comes amid a mounting crisis in healthcare, a cost of the living wage and wider economic stagnation. The move potentially may block moves to provide extra money to households in fuel poverty. It very likely will mean that any concessions offered by Boris Johnson’s beleaguered Tories can not extend to Northern Ireland. As the pain grows from continued political stasis, the DUP’s risky gambit is likely to come under even more pressure on the ground.
A workers’ alternative
Whatever comes, workers can be sure that this latest development offers nothing positive. But then again Stormont’s establishment parties, ‘green’ and ‘orange’, have not delivered anything worthwhile for working-class people, in any case. The recent months have been marked by a long and growing list of disastrous policies. Many are openly wondering if, amid all the sectarian posturing and deadlock, the Stormont parties can do anything right.
We are undoubtedly entering a further period of political instability. The scale of demographic change is likely to be highlighted with publication (4) of the results of the latest census. There is a possibility of Sinn Féin being in government, either side of the border in Ireland, pushing the prospect of a border poll. This would take place while Northern Ireland is caught in a seemingly intractable web of conflict over trade relations exploited by the wider selfish economic interests of British and European capitalism.
There are no answers offered to any of this by the sectarian, right-wing political parties in the Stormont Executive. The way forward is for working-class people to come together in the struggle for socialist change. That must find a political expression – hence the need for a Cross-community Labour Alternative challenge in the upcoming election (5). Only by bringing workers together and linking up in struggle alongside socialists and trade unionists across these islands can we begin to challenge the capitalist establishment and the divide and conquer tactics that sustain it.