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BELFAST — Jeffrey Donaldson is a man under pressure.
The choice the Democratic Unionist Party’s leader makes in the coming weeks will determine whether Northern Ireland regains the cross-community government at the heart of its peace process — or falls deeper into a Brexit-fueled crisis that may last another year or more.
Senior figures in the British government and all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties have told that October looms as the make-or-break month for reviving power-sharing at Stormont, the Greek classical parliament building that overlooks Belfast.
The introduction of long-awaited post-Brexit trade measures next month offers what may be the final political opportunity for Donaldson to break the deadlock before the election cycles of 2024 kick in.
“When you get into the new year you are heading towards a general election,” warned Chris Heaton-Harris, the U.K. government’s Northern Ireland secretary, speaking at 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 big difference in how trade flows, and indeed how goods come into this country.”
In normal times, Stormont is home to the Northern Ireland Assembly and a multi-party executive tasked with governing the divided U.K. region. But little has been normal since the Brexit vote of 2016, which shattered the careful balance of interests fundamental to Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement.
Two U.K.-EU deals designed to avoid post-Brexit checks on goods crossing the land border between the north and the Republic of Ireland have satisfied Irish nationalist and middle-ground parties — but so displeased Donaldson’s DUP that it gridlocked the assembly in May 2022 and collapsed the executive in October.
Under prevailing rules, the Stormont system cannot function without the DUP, the main pro-British party in Northern Ireland. Donaldson insists this veto is the only leverage he has — and he won’t permit power-sharing to be restored unless the U.K. government gives him what he wants.
What Jeffrey wants
What precisely Donaldson wants is somewhat opaque, however.
In February, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak finally unveiled his painstakingly negotiated Windsor Framework, an agreement with the EU designed to satisfy the DUP and break the Stormont deadlock by reducing and simplifying — though not eliminating — checks and restrictions on goods being shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland, the only U.K. region still required to maintain EU goods standards after Brexit.
Since then, Donaldson has spent six months to-ing and fro-ing with Downing Street and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland Office over his demands for further — unspecified — concessions.
“We’re waiting on the last bit of information from the DUP about what they want,” said Steve Baker, Heaton-Harris’ Northern Ireland Office deputy. “When we get it, we will strain every sinew to give it to them, because we want them back.”
Broadly, Donaldson wants even greater limits on the Brussels bureaucracy being planned at Northern Irish ports. He also wants symbolic and legal reassurances for unionists, who fear that the new trade regime will encourage local businesses to deal increasingly with Irish firms rather than British ones and lead, over time, to a united Ireland.
Heaton-Harris and Baker insist the deal on the table is the best the DUP will get. They hope unionists will be reassured by the low levels of checks being rolled out at Northern Irish ports next month, and say it’s now up to Donaldson to accept a further — as yet unpublished — package of concessions being offered behind the scenes.
Baker urged Donaldson to face down hard-line critics both within his party and on social media and radio shows who insist there can be no compromise.
He said Donaldson appeared constrained by “a small number of really important opinion-formers who shape what the DUP does.” Without naming them, Baker said these extremists were “steering the life of Northern Ireland to a degree that is not really consistent with their status as unelected figures.”
Donaldson rejects the U.K. government’s portrayal of his position and their bilateral negotiations, insisting talks could continue indefinitely. “There isn’t a deadline here,” he said.
Running out of road
But leaders of the other parties in Northern Ireland’s mothballed government told that the DUP’s response to the forthcoming Windsor Framework-related legislation, once published, will be crucial.
This is expected to happen by the first week of October, just before the DUP’s annual conference on October 13-14, when Donaldson will face pressure either to accept a return to Stormont or confirm the party is staying out.
Doug Beattie, leader of the smaller moderate Ulster Unionist Party, said he’s confident that Donaldson is about go back in, using the imminent U.K. legislative package as a fig leaf.
“In the next week to 10 days we need to see the enabling legislation for the Windsor Framework,” Beattie said, forecasting that the British government also would publish secondary bills strengthening the role of checks-free “green lanes” at Northern Irish ports and reasserting the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
“Then it’s for the DUP to make a decision whether that’s enough for them to get back into the Stormont arena. The Windsor Framework is going to be implemented regardless,” Beattie said.
“This can’t drag on beyond October, because then you’re moving into the realms of a Westminster election.”
“If the DUP don’t go back into Stormont next month, they won’t be in until after May,” Beattie said. “And after May, with the likelihood of a new British government, the process starts all over again. It could be October, the end of the year, or even the following year. It would be a crazy road to take, which is why I don’t believe Jeffrey will take it.”
Other leaders aren’t so sure, in part because they see the DUP as internally split and Donaldson’s position within his party as too weak. But they agree that, if the DUP doesn’t shift position soon, Stormont faces a likely continued shutdown throughout 2024.
“Jeffrey will have to eventually face down his critics. I just hope that he has the drive and the determination to do that, and to do it pretty quickly,” said Naomi Long, who leads the Alliance Party, which represents middle-ground opinion between the British unionist and Irish nationalist camps.
“If we don’t get back this side of Christmas, it’s very hard to see how there will be another opportunity to come back to the table in the next year or so,” Long said. “We could be into a very prolonged hiatus, and that would be incredibly damaging to our public services, our public finances, and public confidence in our institutions. We’re running out of road.”