No stranger to a crisis, Northern Ireland geared up to celebrate this month as US presidents past and present flew in to join British, Irish and local leaders marking 25 years of peace since the region’s violent “Troubles.”
But just as in 1998, the Democratic Unionist Party is frustrating progress. Its refusal to re-join Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government — an innovation that lies at the heart of the peace accord and seen as a model for conflict resolution around the world — is laying bare the old divisions.
The pressure to back down is immense. Joe Biden promised billions in investment if the government is restored. Bill Clinton said the disagreement is holding back the region and that it is “time to get this show on the road.” Sharing the stage at an anniversary event this week in Belfast, the Ulster Unionist Party, who like the DUP campaign to protect Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, accused it of “trampling all over democracy.”
At the Bloomberg New Economy Gateway Europe meeting near Dublin on Thursday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he and his UK counterpart Rishi Sunak will work on persuading the DUP to re-form Northern Ireland’s government soon after local elections in the region next month. Varadkar held talks with Sunak in Belfast this week on how to get the party to play ball.
“I don’t think the DUP will be brow-beaten or bullied into anything,” Varadkar said in an interview with Bloomberg’s Stephanie Flanders. “They will make their decisions based on what they think is right.”
On the surface at least, these interventions appear to be falling on deaf ears. Some fear they could even convince the unionists to dig in.
The DUP was the only major political party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement and a quarter of a century on, sees the Brexit deal between the UK and European Union as similarly undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. Until its demands are met, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated, the boycott will continue. While the stance appeals to staunch unionists, it risks limiting its support in local council elections next month.
“We’ll soon find out,” Ian Paisley, who represents the DUP in the UK Parliament, said when asked if losing softer unionists who voted for the party in the past is a price worth paying. “We have to do right even if the stars fall.”
According to Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, the DUP risks losing votes “in both directions.” Backing down risks hemorrhaging support to the harder unionist TUV, she said, while preventing democratic institutions from functioning may already have alienated more moderate voters. “They are in danger,” she said.
The DUP wants to ensure that Northern Ireland and its people are treated the same as the rest of the UK. They are also trying to prevent checks on goods moving between the region and Britain.
Neither is met fully by the terms of the Brexit deal, which was signed first by Prime Minister Boris Johnson before the EU and Sunak reached an agreement to ease post-Brexit rules on Northern Ireland. In terms of trade, it left the region with one foot in the UK and one in the EU’s single market — giving it market access and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, but subject to the bloc’s rules and some checks, still, on products crossing the Irish Sea.
Both the UK and EU have made clear there will be no more negotiating, though the British government has promised upcoming legislation will provide assurances to unionists about Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
Northern Ireland’s other political parties say the DUP, which commissioned its own consultation on the impact of the Brexit deal as it assesses is next move, must now make a choice. “The only people excluding the DUP are the DUP themselves,” Colum Eastwood, leader of the nationalist SDLP, said in Belfast.
But the dispute is part of a broader political backdrop that worries the unionist party.
Catholics are now the biggest religious group in Northern Ireland, and in 2022 elections, nationalist Sinn Fein — which has in the past also abstained from the power-sharing government — became the largest party in the assembly for the first time. That makes its ambition for an eventual referendum on a united Ireland harder to ignore.
It also means that if the DUP does opt to return to power-sharing, it would be nominating the deputy first minister in the devolved government.
This week, global leaders urged Northern Irish politicians to look forward. But the dispute over power-sharing and Brexit and the Windsor Framework still had echoes of the original tussle over the Good Friday Agreement.
“I am not here to bow to presidents and prime ministers,” said Emma Little-Pengelly, a DUP member in Northern Ireland’s assembly. “The reality is sometimes, as hard as it may be, it is the right thing to say: ‘No, this is not fair, we need to get this fixed.’”