Northern Ireland

John Manley: Hardline unionism can't hold back the tide

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by PA
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by PA DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by PA

Not for the first time, the bulk of political unionism stands King Canute-like attempting to hold back the tide.

The DUP and TUV, along with their unelected and self-appointed fellow travellers, nonchalantly persist with their obstinance, insisting power-sharing cannot be restored until their demands are met.

Public services continue to deteriorate, while they are increasingly out of step with civic society and a business sector that is eager to move on.

The naysayers' self-serving demands are unrealistic because of a situation they should have foresaw had they undertaken any strategic planning. 

Did Sir Jeffrey Donaldson really believe that 40,000 job losses was an acceptable sacrifice in order to cut ties with the EU? Was it worth vetoing the backstop, securing a pyrrhic victory that simply delayed the point at which the DUP would be thrown under a bus?

Should the DUP have jumped when the opportunity presented itself in February with the Windsor Framework? The hubris that accompanied Theresa May's downfall and the ascendency of the charlatan Boris Johnson has been replaced by isolation, and increasingly, desperation.

Read more:

  • DUP's Windsor Framework failure merely another entry in weary litany of unionism's political pratfalls
  • Brian Feeney: DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson must believe in fairy tales

Rishi Sunak is unlikely to be remembered as one of the UK's more outstanding prime ministers but in terms of mending the damaged relationship with Brussels, he has been both resolute and pragmatic.

The Windsor Framework is attempting to make the best of a bad situation. It has reduced trade friction, while maintaining the unique opportunity for Northern Ireland to prosper thanks to dual access to the UK and EU markets.

It is imperfect and bureaucratic but better than anything else that's on offer. When it becomes operational on Sunday, it's unlikely anybody outside of supermarket and industry supply lines will notice. 

Yet pure unionism wants a pure Brexit. They want to be part of a UK that doesn't really want them. Their idea of 'best of both worlds' is a situation in which they take the economic benefits of the union but without any social responsibilities.

They'll take a border in the Irish Sea as long as it prevents access to abortion, language rights and same sex marriage.

They don't have a majority in the north that will consent to putting a hard border in Ireland so they invoke the result of the UK-wide vote, deliberately ignoring the special circumstances created by the peace process.

The agitators continue to play the zero sum game despite knowing the future must be shared.

But we know the DUP is not homogeneous – its leader admitted as much in the leaked email that emerged at the beginning of last month. It was designed to put manners on the dissenters but arguably has only riled them more.

They continue to undermine efforts to broker a compromise, raising the bar and the political temperature with every utterance.

Weak leadership has allowed the sore to fester, suggesting amputation may be the only remedy available. Sir Jeffrey has shown little of the courage necessary to undertake such drastic action so it's likely the drift will continue, as will the directionless pas de deux with the British government that looks destined to deliver nothing.

It may take the election of a Labour government and closer alignment with the EU to break the deadlock but can we withstand this indefinite political inertia?

Already the talk is of Plan B and alternatives. While we've had no effective government for 18 months, increasingly people can see through the DUP's stunts and its reluctance to return to a Stormont where it is no longer top dog. The institutions may be suspended but the political landscape continues to transform. Time and tide wait for no one.