Sam McBride: Deep instability now looms in Northern Ireland – and the DUP civil war is central to it

As Edwin Poots looks ahead, the political landscape is beyond bleak.

Saturday, 12th June 2021, 8:18 am
Cartoonist Brian John Spencer’s take on the decline of the DUP
Cartoonist Brian John Spencer’s take on the decline of the DUP

On realising that, the DUP’s opponents will be instinctively tempted to schadenfreude. But his problems are in some ways problems for all of Northern Ireland.

They point to a coming year of instability in politics, along with the separate but related societal instability which could be manifested on the streets. There is little certainty about what is to come.

The uncertainty begins next week when Arlene Foster will resign as First Minister, thus also ejecting Michelle O’Neill from her position as deputy First Minister and triggering a seven-day period in which to put Ms O’Neill and the DUP’s First Minister-designate, Paul Givan, can be put into office. Sinn Féin could refuse to renominate for the post – something which would see devolution collapse and a snap election, but that seems unlikely.

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Sinn Féin has its own internal problems and even if it did not, collapsing devolution during a pandemic would require a very convincing explanation to voters. But, always mindful of leverage which can be used to political advantage, Sinn Féin has not ruled out a crisis.

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Perhaps Sinn Féin’s most self-interested argument in favour of an election now rather than in a year’s time is that the DUP is in such disarray that this may be the best possible chance to overtake them.

Even if Sinn Féin loses a few seats – as is likely, given the rise of the SDLP and Alliance – it is still plausible that it returns as the largest party. The fact that the possibility of Sinn Féin refusing to renominate is even being talked about seriously is in large part down to the DUP.

It is from within the DUP where for weeks briefings expressing concern about that possibility have emanated from those opposed to Mr Poots who are urging him to be cautious in order to avoid a crisis.

Mr Poots has been careful to avoid giving Sinn Féin a major complaint – such as reneging on the DUP’s promise last year to pass an Irish language act (so long as it is called something else) – with which to justify a walkout at this stage.

That means that Stormont is likely to limp along until at least the autumn, and probably until next May’s scheduled elections. But it is at that point that acute instability is likely.

Unless the result is a shock, there will be an array of problems. Some potential points of instability can now be foreseen – but others are likely to arise, perhaps suddenly and unexpectedly.

Mr Poots’s first dilemma is how to handle the result. Polling and anecdotal evidence indicate a splintered vote in which Sinn Féin and the DUP stay the biggest parties but concede ground to rivals. The DUP is hopelessly divided to the extent that the party could even split before polling day – which would all but guarantee Sinn Féin’s emergence as the largest party for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland.

If, as is no longer regarded in Stormont as possible but rather as likely, Sinn Féin is the largest party, the DUP must decide whether it will put forward a deputy First Minister.

It will not matter that the posts of first and deputy first minister are legally equal, nor that one cannot order a box of paper clips as minister without the other’s approval. There is inherent symbolic significance in being the largest party and having the title of First Minister.

And the DUP has spent years warning of this scenario in apocalyptic terms – something it used to harvest votes, but in the expectation that it would never happen. Given that rhetoric, shrugging their shoulders at that outcome will be difficult.

Mr Poots has refused to answer when asked whether the DUP would accept second place in Stormont Castle. Yet the party must know that walking away in such circumstances would almost certainly be disastrous for unionism.

It would involve the party refusing to accept the rules under which in the past they have won – for no reason other than that they had lost for the first time; the political equivalent of a petulant child taking his ball home because he couldn’t cope with the other side scoring a goal.

The second point of instability in that scenario would be the realisation by unionism that it had failed to secure the numbers to vote down the Irish Sea border in 2024. It would then be clear that the sea border is there to stay and that even in these circumstances unionism can no longer win a Stormont majority – a huge psychological blow.

In fact, unionism only needs 45 MLAs to tie the vote in order to block consent because of how the legislation is written.

But that would require at least five more unionist MLAs to be elected – and more if some unionist MLAs would vote for the sea border.

Five months ago the independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden told me that she was undecided about how to vote on articles 5-10 of the NI Protocol. Now, after months of constituents – especially businesses – coming to her with problems due to the sea border, she says that she is more likely to vote against it.

The East Londonderry MLA said: “I would find it very difficult to support it – right now I’m not seeing any of the benefits; only the negatives”.

But she says she will not adopt a definitive position in next year’s election, meaning that only if unionism wins six extra seats is it guaranteed to have the necessary numbers.

In the unlikely event that that happens, instability would emerge from another quarter, with pro-Protocol parties incentivised to collapse Stormont at some point before 2024 in the hope of a different electoral outcome.

But unionist hopes of securing six more seats now look forlorn, principally because of the civil war within the DUP which is intensifying rather than moving towards ceasefire.

A row over positions in the DUP’s South Down constituency association last weekend led to several members quitting the party. But an astonishing detail emerged from one of those who resigned. Veteran councillor Glynn Hanna alleged that local MLA Jm Wells had “flooded” the meeting with his backers. In fact, even after the alleged “flooding”, only 15 people were present.

Likewise, leaked minutes of a South Antrim DUP association meeting in February showed just 18 people present. The DUP is now a tiny number of people talking to and fighting with each other.

The party, which has always tended towards insularity, has become increasingly introverted and therefore may act in ways which are dramatically out of touch with the electorate.

There are other points of potential peril for the future of devolution, 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 grace periods expire – most significantly when the medicines border begins at the end of this year.

This week Mr Poots suggested to BBC Spotlight that if grace periods are not extended by the autumn, he may order his civil servants to stop checks on goods. That would prompt a political and legal crisis as well as a dispute between Mr Poots’ civil servants and their minister.

Because of the scale of internal opposition which Mr Poots faces and his party’s collapse in the polls, he is the weakest leader of unionism since David Trimble in his final lingering period at the helm of the UUP.

Mr Poots’s weakness is now inescapably linked to every one of these problems. Regardless of his preferences, the available options are constrained by what his party will accept.

Days into the job, party wolves are openly biting at his calves. If the DUP does poorly in next year’s election they will be aiming for his head.

Some of the DUP’s opponents cannot hide their glee at the party’s predicament. But if the party which has propped up Stormont for 11 of the last 14 years messily implodes it is almost certain to take many others with it – and perhaps this whole system of government.

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Sam McBride: Edwin Poots has won three times in a month – but he’s losing a bigger battle

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