Northern Ireland’s Future Hangs in the Balance: Can Jeffrey Donaldson Break the Deadlock?

Northern Ireland’s political future teeters on the brink as Jeffrey Donaldson faces a critical choice.

Stormont, the neoclassical parliament building overlooking Belfast, where the fate of Northern Ireland's government hangs in the balance.
Stormont, the neoclassical parliament building overlooking Belfast, where the fate of Northern Ireland’s government hangs in the balance. Image: Getty Images

Belfast, September 15, 2023 – As the political landscape in Northern Ireland remains in turmoil, Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), finds himself at a pivotal crossroads. The decisions he makes in the coming weeks will play a decisive role in determining whether Northern Ireland can restore its cross-community government, a cornerstone of the peace process, or if it will sink further into a Brexit-induced crisis that could persist for another year or more.

With senior figures in the British government and all five of Northern Ireland’s major political parties sounding the alarm, October is looming as a make-or-break month for reviving power-sharing at Stormont, the historic neoclassical parliament building that gazes over Belfast.

The impending introduction of long-awaited post-Brexit trade measures next month presents what might be the final political opportunity for Donaldson to shatter the deadlock before the 2024 election cycles kick in.

“In the new year, we are heading towards a general election,” cautioned Chris Heaton-Harris, the U.K. government’s Northern Ireland secretary, while addressing an investment conference in Belfast this week. “On October 1, the first phase of the Windsor Framework [post-Brexit agreement] comes in, and we will see a significant change in how trade flows and how goods enter this country.”

Stormont, in normal circumstances, houses the Northern Ireland Assembly and a multi-party executive responsible for governing the divided region. However, normalcy has been a scarce commodity since the 2016 Brexit referendum shattered the delicate balance of interests crucial to Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord.

Two U.K.-EU agreements aimed at preventing post-Brexit checks on goods crossing the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have garnered support from Irish nationalist and moderate parties but have deeply displeased Donaldson’s DUP. This discontent led to a standstill in the assembly in May 2022 and the collapse of the executive in October of the same year.

As per the existing rules, the Stormont system cannot operate without the DUP, the primary pro-British party in Northern Ireland. Donaldson asserts that this veto is his only leverage, and he remains steadfast in his refusal to restore power-sharing unless the U.K. government accedes to his demands.

Donaldson’s precise demands, however, remain somewhat opaque. In February, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled the Windsor Framework, a painstakingly negotiated agreement with the EU designed to satisfy the DUP and resolve the Stormont deadlock by reducing and simplifying (though not eliminating) checks and restrictions on goods shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland, the only U.K. region still subject to EU goods standards post-Brexit.

Since then, Donaldson has engaged in six months of back-and-forth negotiations with Downing Street and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland Office regarding his demand for further, yet unspecified, concessions.

“We are awaiting the final details from the DUP regarding their requirements,” stated Steve Baker, Deputy of Heaton-Harris at the Northern Ireland Office. “Once we receive them, we will make every effort to accommodate them, as we are eager to have them back.”

Broadly, Donaldson seeks more significant limitations on the Brussels bureaucracy’s role at Northern Irish ports. He also desires symbolic and legal assurances for unionists who fear that the new trade arrangements will encourage local businesses to favor Irish firms over British ones, potentially leading to a united Ireland over time.

Heaton-Harris and Baker assert that the current deal on the table is the best the DUP can expect. They hope that unionists will be reassured by the minimal checks slated for Northern Irish ports next month and maintain that it is now Donaldson’s turn to accept an additional, yet undisclosed, package of concessions offered behind closed doors.

Baker implored Donaldson to stand firm against hard-line critics both within his party and in the realm of social media and radio, where some argue that there can be no compromise.

Donaldson refutes the U.K. government’s portrayal of his position and the nature of their bilateral negotiations, insisting that talks can continue indefinitely. “There is no deadline here,” he emphasized.

However, leaders of other parties within Northern Ireland’s dormant government informed POLITICO that the DUP’s response to the forthcoming legislation related to the Windsor Framework, set to be published by early October, will be pivotal.

This development is expected to occur just before the DUP’s annual conference on October 13-14, where Donaldson will face mounting pressure to either accept a return to Stormont or confirm the party’s decision to remain outside.

Doug Beattie, leader of the smaller moderate Ulster Unionist Party, expressed confidence that Donaldson is on the verge of reengaging, using the imminent U.K. legislative package as a pretext.

“In the next week to 10 days, we need to see the enabling legislation for the Windsor Framework,” Beattie stressed. He also predicted that the British government would publish secondary bills strengthening the role of checks-free “green lanes” at Northern Irish ports and reaffirming Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom.

“Then it’s up to the DUP to decide whether that’s sufficient for their return to the Stormont arena. The Windsor Framework will be implemented regardless,” Beattie concluded.

“If the DUP does not return to Stormont next month, they are unlikely to do so until after May,” Beattie explained. “After May, with the possibility of a new British government, the process restarts. It could be October, the end of the year, or even the following year. It would be an unwise path, which is why I doubt Jeffrey will take it.”

Other leaders, however, harbor reservations, partly due to their perception of internal divisions within the DUP and what they view as Donaldson’s tenuous position within his party. Nonetheless, they concur that, if the DUP fails to shift its stance in the near future, Stormont could face continued inactivity throughout 2024.

“Jeffrey will eventually need to confront his critics. I hope he possesses the drive and determination to do so swiftly,” remarked Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, representing a centrist viewpoint between British unionists and Irish nationalists.

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“If we do not return before Christmas, it becomes increasingly challenging to foresee another opportunity to return to the table in the following year or so,” Long cautioned. “We may be headed for a prolonged standstill, which would have dire consequences for our public services, finances, and public trust in our institutions. Time is running out.”

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