Sam McBride: Deep instability is now looming in Northern Ireland – and the DUP civil war is central there
Realizing this, the opponents of the DUP will instinctively be tempted to schadenfreude. But its problems are kind of problems for all of Northern Ireland.
They herald a year of political instability ahead, as well as the distinct but related societal instability that could manifest on the streets. There is little certainty about what will happen.
The uncertainty begins next week when Arlene Foster resigns as prime minister, thereby also ejecting Michelle O’Neill from her post as deputy prime minister and triggering a seven-day period to put Ms O’Neill and the prime minister DUP nominee, Paul Givan, may be nominated. Sinn Féin could refuse to run for the job – something that would see devolution crumble and early elections, but that seems unlikely.
Sinn Féin has its own internal issues and even if it didn’t, the collapse of decentralization during a pandemic would require a very convincing explanation to voters. But, always concerned with levers that can be used for political ends, Sinn Féin does not rule out a crisis.
Perhaps Sinn Féin’s most self-serving argument for elections now rather than a year from now is that the DUP is in such disarray that this may be the best possible chance of overtaking them.
Even if Sinn Féin loses a few seats – as is likely, given the rise of the SDLP and the Alliance – it is still plausible that it will return as the bigger party. The fact that the possibility of Sinn Féin refusing to rename itself is even seriously raised is in large part due to DUP.
It is within the DUP that, for weeks, briefings expressing their concern about this possibility emanate from the opponents of Mr Poots who urge him to be cautious in order to avoid a crisis.
Mr Poots was careful to avoid making a major complaint to Sinn Féin – for example by abandoning the DUP’s promise to pass an Irish language law (as long as it is called otherwise) – to justify a disengagement at this point.
This means Stormont is likely to limp until at least the fall, and possibly until the election scheduled for next May. But it is at this stage that acute instability is likely.
Unless the result is a shock, there will be a whole host of problems. Some potential points of instability can now be foreseen, but others are likely to arise, perhaps suddenly and unexpectedly.
Mr. Poots’ first dilemma is how to handle the bottom line. Polls and anecdotal evidence point to a divided vote in which Sinn Féin and DUP remain the biggest parties but give way to their rivals. The DUP is desperately divided to the point that the party could even split up before election day – which would almost guarantee the emergence of Sinn Féin as the largest party for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history.
If, as it is no longer seen in Stormont as possible but rather as probable, Sinn Féin is the most important party, the DUP must decide whether to propose a deputy prime minister.
It doesn’t matter that the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister are legally equal, or that one cannot order a box of paperclips as minister without the other’s approval. There is a symbolic meaning inherent in being the biggest party and having the title of Prime Minister.
And the DUP spent years warning of this scenario in apocalyptic terms – something they used to garner votes, but in the hope that it would never happen. Given this rhetoric, it will be difficult to shrug our shoulders at this outcome.
Mr Poots declined to answer when asked if the DUP would accept second place at Stormont Castle. Yet the party must know that withdrawing under such circumstances would almost certainly be disastrous for unionism.
This would imply that the party refuses to accept the rules by which it won in the past – for the sole reason that it lost for the first time; the political equivalent of a petulant kid who brings home his ball because he can’t stand the other team scoring a goal.
The second point of instability in this scenario would be the realization by trade unionism that it failed to obtain the number of votes against the Irish Sea border in 2024. It would then be clear that the border maritime is here to stay and that even under these circumstances unionism can no longer win a majority in Stormont – a huge psychological blow.
In fact, unionism only needs 45 tied MPs to block consent because of the way the law is drafted.
But that would require at least five more MPs to be elected – and more if some trade union MPs voted for the maritime border.
Five months ago, Independent Union Member of Parliament Claire Sugden told me that she was undecided on how to vote on Articles 5 to 10 of the NI Protocol. Now, after months of voters – especially businesses – presenting her with maritime border issues, she says she is more likely to vote against.
The MP for East Londonderry said: “I would find it very difficult to support him – at the moment I see none of the benefits; only the negatives ”.
But she says she won’t take a final stand in next year’s election, which means that only if unionism wins six more seats is it guaranteed to have the necessary number.
In the unlikely event that this did happen, instability would emerge from another quarter, with pro-Protocol parties being pressured to bring Stormont down at some point before 2024 in hopes of a different electoral outcome.
But union hopes for six more seats now appear to be in vain, mainly because of the escalating civil war within the DUP rather than moving towards a ceasefire.
A row over posts in the DUP South Down constituency association last weekend led several members to quit the party. But an astonishing detail has emerged from one of those who resigned. Veteran Councilor Glynn Hanna alleged that local MP Jm Wells “flooded” the meeting with his supporters. In fact, even after the so-called “flood”, only 15 people were present.
Likewise, a leaked account of a South Antrim DUP meeting in February showed only 18 people in attendance. DUP is now a small number of people talking and fighting with each other.
The party, which has always tended to be insular, has become more and more introverted and can therefore act in ways that are dramatically disconnected from the electorate.
There are other points of potential danger to the future of decentralization, with a widespread expectation of loyalist violence at some point this summer and a series of points at which the Irish Sea border will harden as the grace periods will expire – especially when the drug frontier begins. at the end of this year.
This week, Mr Poots suggested to BBC Spotlight that if the grace periods are not extended by the fall, he can order his officials to stop checks on goods. This would cause a political and legal crisis as well as a dispute between Mr Poots’ officials and their minister.
Due to the scale of internal opposition Mr Poots faces and his party’s collapse in the polls, he is the weakest union leader since David Trimble in his last period of persistence in the polls. head of the UUP.
Mr. Poots’ weakness is now inextricably linked to each of these issues. Whatever his preferences, the options available are limited by what his party will agree to.
Days after starting labor, the party wolves openly bite her calves. If the DUP does poorly in next year’s election, it will aim for its head.
Some opponents of the DUP cannot hide their joy at the difficult situation of the party. But if the party that has supported Stormont for 11 of the past 14 years implodes in a haphazard fashion, it is almost certain to take many more with it – and maybe this whole system of government.
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