Northern Ireland

John Manley: Strong unionist leaders are those that say 'Yes'

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA

It turns out Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was right when he told us Thursday night's DUP executive meeting would be "literally routine" – up to a point at least. These days, more than 18 months into the party's boycott of the institutions with implementation of the Windsor Framework moving ahead, no meeting of 130 DUP members is ever going to be entirely mundane. However, by all accounts, a lid was kept on any public dissent and disgruntlement within the party ranks.

The meeting passed off without major incident arguably because Sir Jeffrey had little substantive to tell his audience beyond what he's been saying since February – the DUP wants the north's place within the UK internal market safeguarded. In line with Article 6 of the Act of Union, goods from Britain destined for Northern Ireland should not face any trade barriers, and likewise for those travelling in the opposite direction, he says. The DUP is willing to begrudgingly accept an Irish Sea border, so long as its purpose is to separate Britain from the EU, rather than fettering internal UK trade. 

The ball is therefore in the court of the British government, which appears no longer willing to indulge too much DUP obstinacy. Rishi Sunak is attempting to repair the damaged relations with the EU and won't be embarking on the belligerent course taken previously by Boris Johnson and Lord David Frost. In these circumstances, delivering for the DUP is something of a tightrope walk.

Whatever legislative assurances can be given to Sir Jeffrey must be compatible with the Windsor Framework, otherwise we'll be back at square one. Similarly, the British government must ensure it does not alienate the majority in the north who are happy with the current arrangements, which are designed to deal with a problem not of their making.

After months of what have been characterised as negotiations, it looks like the British government is readying a response. This is unlikely to come, publicly at least, before next weekend's DUP conference. Sources have indicated that if the party were to be put on the spot this week it would turn the conference into a "circus", an assessment the British government is likely to share, unless its aim is to destabilise Sir Jeffrey.

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

John Manley: Dithering Donaldson is unlikely to face down the DUP dissenters

The latter half of the month seems more likely, a view seemingly shared by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who after meeting Mr Sunak in Spain spoke of a "window of opportunity" to restore the institutions in the coming weeks. Whatever the British government comes up with it is unlikely to be "seismic", as Edwin Poots insisted it must be, or necessarily the "fig leaf" that TUV leader Jim Allister has suggested. It needs to convince the DUP hardliners but also, ironically, be substantive and credible enough to demonstrate to those who support a return to Stormont that the boycott was necessary in the first place.

It would appear that increasingly the DUP cares less about what is said by critics outside the party  – the penny has belatedly dropped with the realisation that the terminal naysayers have nothing to offer beyond negativity and long-term electoral decline. Sir Jeffrey may still find it a challenge to convince the internal sceptics but until we actually know what's on offer from the British government, it's all conjecture.

However, whatever is ultimately tabled, will likely need courage and commitment to sell it. Little over two years into his tenure, as Sir Jeffrey approaches his 'David Trimble moment', he must understand that strong unionist leaders are the ones that 'Yes'.