A Letter From Ireland
At times politics in Ireland is marked by moments of tension, high drama, and decisive action. Last week was the opposite. We got indecision, high farce, and inaction.
Two years ago, the Democratic Unionist Party collapsed the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. They claimed it was in protest at the post-Brexit trading arrangements which kept the North of Ireland in both the EU and British markets. A unique and preferential status not granted to any other region of Europe.
The suspicion was that a sizable section of the DUP believed that the loss of the overall unionist majority in the Assembly and Executive meant that they could not dictate the agenda or frustrate progress.
Their collapse necessitated an election in May 2022 in which Sinn Féin became the largest party and the party’s vice president, Michelle O’Neill became the First Minister Elect. This was historic as the position had always been held by a Unionist in a state that was partitioned to maintain a permanent Unionist majority.
In February last year, the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, under the cover of night came to Belfast. He had concluded a deal with the EU which they believed the DUP would accept and return to government. He returned to London, without the anticipated DUP agreement.
A year on and the DUP blockade continues. The British Government has said that the negotiations with the DUP have concluded and it is decision time. Last Thursday night was the legislative deadline for the DUP to either proceed with the restoration of Government or face a new election.
The deadline came and went with the British Government stating that they would set a new deadline.
On Friday morning the media reported that the DUP leadership was meeting to decide on whether to lift their blockade. The speculation throughout the day was that it was “game on”. By late afternoon, the DUP confirmed that they were meeting but not to make a decision. That classification could have been made in the morning. It seems that the meeting had not gone well.
The British Government has now announced a new new deadline of Feb 8th. All of this has undermined confidence in the political process and turned it into a farce.
On Wednesday, the leader of the DUP, Jefferey Donaldson, made an impassioned plea on the need for a deal.
The inability of the DUP to make a decision reflects a minority that is opposed to equality and power-sharing with an Irish Republican First Minister. They believe that the alternative to the Good Friday Agreement is the end of devolution, a return to direct rule from London, and the blocking of any future Irish Unity Referendum.
They have been encouraged in this thinking by a British Government that has acted unilaterally, without the support of the Irish Government, in an exclusive process with the DUP. That policy has failed to date.
As we head to the deadline of Feb 8th, we do so more in hope than expectation. The key to progress is making clear that in the absence of power-sharing in Belfast is a partnership between the British and Irish Governments. Without that, the minority from within the minority DUP will continue to block progress. That signal alone will focus the DUP to come to the right decision.
Have a great weekend.
Ciarán Quinn is the Sinn Féin Representative to North America. Each week he writes a letter from Ireland with news and analysis. It is featured in the weekly Friends of Sinn Féin USA Newsletter. Be sure you are subscribed to stay up to date.