Northern Ireland

Analysis: Pointless outcome raises questions about the value of Stormont’s democratic consent

The DUP won the day as its motion on new EU law failed to gain cross-community support but the north’s manufacturers may end up being the losers

John Manley

John Manley

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

The first vote on extending a new EU law to Northern Ireland was taking place at the Stormont Assembly
The first vote on extending a new EU law to Northern Ireland took place in the assembly. PCITURE: LIAM MCBURNEY (Liam McBurney/PA)

So much of Stormont’s politics is performative that’s it’s often difficult to distinguish stunts from genuine endeavour. The DUP insisted its applicability motion on geographical indicators (GIs) really matters. The party argues that adopting new EU laws on craft and industrial products will create a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, similar to the one Sir Jeffrey Donaldson claims to have done away with.

When agreeing to restore the institutions at the end of January, the DUP leader said he would use the institutions to further ameliorate the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework. One of the party’s seven tests was to ensure people in Northern Ireland have a say in the making of the laws which govern them.

DUP MLA for Upper Bann Jonathan Buckley said the vote was a significant moment for the NI Assembly
DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY (Liam McBurney/PA)

This motion, brought by the DUP with the aim of seeing it defeated, was putting that pledge into effect and utilising the framework’s democratic consent processes, which give the assembly the opportunity to scrutinise new EU law, albeit briefly on this occasion, before MLAs vote on it. It’s not quite the ‘Stormont brake’, more a mild restraint.

The motion’s key sponsor, DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley, suggested there was a difference between agricultural GIs – the kind that give Comber potatoes special status – and those for craft and industrial products that the EU is proposing to introduce across the single market. The distinction is unclear, with the only discernable difference being that the former have the support of the influential farming lobby.

The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole
Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole. PCITURE: LIAM MCBURNEY (Liam McBurney/PA)

Arguing in favour of the motion was primarily down to Alliance and the SDLP. The Sinn Féin benches were mostly empty during the debate, suggesting both that the motion has little substantive impact and that its non-aggression pact with the DUP prevails. The two parties were in Washington last week selling the north as an investment location with dual market access, an exercise that would appear futile were they to come straight back home and begin tearing strips off each other in the assembly chamber during a debate about trade.

Much of the bidding in support of the motion came from Opposition leader, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, who argued that the DUP’s actions in blocking the EU laws could have real economic consequences for the north’s craft producers. What the DUP was seeking to accommodate, he said, were “Del Boy” manufacturers who would seek to sell fake Chantilly Lace into Northern Ireland.

One of less complex arguments put forward during a debate on a motion that was technical in both its nature and procedurally was that MLAs would be better off addressing the issues that people really care about rather than expending so much energy on matters of principle.

Ultimately the motion received the support of 60% of the 81 representatives who voted, however, under the rules it failed to gain cross-community consent.

The motion’s failure to receive support from a majority of both nationalists and unionists means it is now up to the British government, in consultation with the EU via the joint committee, to decide whether to adopt the regulations. The DUP can at least say they tried to thwart it, which the party hopes will enable it to deflect TUV criticism of the “Donaldson deal”.

In theory, we face the prospect of such debates every few months, or just as long as the DUP needs to demonstrate its determination to keep the EU in check. But if the pointless outcome of this first debate is anything to go by, MLAs could spend their time much more constructively.