The DUP Continue to Threaten Closing Stormont

By Hannah Weir

It comes as no surprise that despite threatening to collapse Stormont only three months into his tenure as DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his compatriots insist it’s a choice removed from their hands entirety. According to Sir Jefferey, should the Irish sea-border continue to exist, the “foundation” of power sharing would be compromised through unionist interests not being met. The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by the British Government with the EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the single market by allowing for checks on goods from Britain at local ports. Amid reopened negotiations regarding the Protocol, the DUP leader has continued to reiterate his threat to withdraw his ministers from the NI Executive should changes not be made.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has come under fire for continuously threatening to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive

It’s a story we’ve come to know very well in the last few years. In 2017, following the looming ferocity of the RHI scandal and the declining health of then Deputy First minister Martin McGuinness at the time, Stormont went out of action for a world record 590 days. During this time, other parties blamed the Democratic Unionist Party’s reluctance to face up to the £240 million cost of the renewable energy scheme. The DUP countered by calling Sinn Fein “inflexible” in their position on the Irish language act, a hugely symbolic measure but deeply problematic for some unionists. As such, both parties concluded throughout multiple rounds of negotiation, that the choice was simply out of their hands.

The sentiment of their hands being tied was echoed but significantly dulled in tone by now First Minister Paul Givan. Maintaining his party’s commitment to devolution working is of the utmost importance, Mr Givan peppered his talk of collapsing institutions with acknowledgements of it’s unpopularity as a tactical negotiation measure. Naturally, this takes some of the bite out of Donaldson’s threats, especially given his ultimatum to the UK and Brussels in Octobers regarding the protocol has came and went; with very little action taken.

Paul Givan MLA became First Minister of Northern Ireland, alongside Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill MLA, in 2021.

Whilst the DUP continues to flexes its muscles in some shape or form, the party as well as everyone else is all too aware of the looming assembly election in May. This peacocking display seems to have lost its ability to dazzle opponents, especially when comparing the current threats of collapse to actual collapse of 2017. A lot has happened in five years. The change in leadership was not exactly giving the public a head to roll, but moreso a revolving door of the already well-known faces who have been at the top of the party for some time. In the 2017 Assembly election, the DUP’s vote share decreased ever so slightly by just over 1%, and also marking the first time since partition that unionist parties did not maintain a majority of seats in Stormont. The DUP’s loss of seats also prevented it from unilaterally using the petition of concern mechanism, a measure used to infamously block same sex marriage proposals. Even since the collapse and return of Stormont, the parties position would appear weakened based on the last elections numbers.

More recent polling data suggests current numbers are not on the party’s side either. A University of Liverpool poll from November 2021 found The DUP are falling behind Sinn Fein as the largest party in Northern Ireland. The party have lost a third of the votes they received at the last election in 2019 and are lagging behind Sinn Fein at 20.6% of the first preference votes.

In the poll of 1,002 people, just over 62% of respondents felt the party have handled the dispute around the protocol poorly. With this in mind, it’s certainly harder to take threats of collapse as seriously as before. With the party leader even giving a voice to it’s unpopularity as a measure, it makes one wonder exactly why and how far the party is willing to go for the protocol. Additionally, does it really have the internal resolve and external support to ask the public for forgiveness should it need to?

The last poll of 2021 would suggest that this drop in support may not be as drastic as it initially seemed.

When looking at the DUP’s threats of collapse, the context of what portion of the electorate this gesture speaks to is as important as the gesture itself. Realistically, the cleavages in Northern Ireland politics would have us take for granted that the DUP’s main base of supporters are unmoving as a bloc. It’s fringe voting, softer unionists, perhaps even those who supported Brexit and are having second thoughts who the DUP need to win back.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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