Brian Feeney: DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson must believe in fairy tales

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson during his first speech as party leader to the DUP's annual conference last year
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson during his first speech as party leader to the DUP's annual conference last year

Jeffrey Donaldson must believe in fairy tales. He’s been peddling them now for seven years at least.

Big boys in England told him, so they must be true. You could leave the EU, its customs union and single market, but still retain free access to European markets.

There would be no need for an Irish Sea border because you could have a hard British border in Ireland; but it would be invisible because it would be monitored by magic devices of wondrous technology hitherto unknown.

You could have a no-deal Brexit which would mean 40,000 job losses here, but that’s OK because he said he could "live with myself".

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One of Donaldson’s many major problems is that his voters believed him, still do. Look at the results in May’s council elections. The DUP are down, but not by much. So how and, most crucially, when, is he going to tell DUP voters it was all fairy tales?

We’re approaching a critical juncture. The DUP’s conference is October 13 – yes, honestly, great choice, Friday 13. Then is a chance to come clean, blame the Brits (fooled us again), admit the Windsor Framework is all he’s going to get, and return to Stormont.

None of that will happen of course. Not only is he afraid to tell his voters the truth, but the split in the DUP, papered over after the party publicly fell apart in May 2021 at the Crowne Plaza hotel, lies still agape. Donaldson is too weak to face down Ian Óg, Wilson, Poots, Dodds and their supporters.

There’s more. The operation of the Protocol modified by the Windsor Framework kicks in on October 1: labelling, the Retail Movement Scheme for agri-food, enrolment for the new GB trusted trader scheme. Construction of customs inspection sheds at four ports follows.

The timetable for full operation to be complete by winter 2025 is inexorable. So Donaldson can’t very well claim in October there’s no sea border while it’s being built around him. He’s led his party into a cul de sac with a customs shed at the end of it.

The British will not offer a ‘get out of jail free’ card either. Westminster is in recess for most of October during the party conference season. It returns on November 7 for the king’s speech, kicking off what will likely be the last session of this Parliament. The north won’t figure.

Here’s the thing. Even if the British promised some meaningless piece of legislation in November it won’t stop, alter or prevent the Framework’s operation. There’ll still be a border in the Irish sea.

The critical juncture will be in November. If the DUP are still boycotting, they will stay out until after the British general election. The indications are they’ll hang on in the forlorn hope that a Starmer government will make a favourable deal with the EU.

Forlorn hope indeed. The EU will not reopen the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Maros Sefcovic explained last month that the EU sees a review of the TCA in 2026 as merely a review of its operations. Starmer will not rejoin the single market.

A veterinary agreement will take years to conclude. All 27 members have to agree but many are unhappy about the UK getting special consideration; others don’t trust the UK after the last seven years. Furthermore, the EU is happy with the TCA and is concentrating on expansion east. Brexit is history.

Lurking behind all the speculation about how Donaldson climbs down off his window sill lies the real question for many in the DUP.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

The north was created and designed to be run by and for unionists. How then can the DUP ever reconcile going into an executive with a Sinn Féin First Minister? The reality is that many in his party, and in unionism as a whole, can’t. For them the Irish Sea border is the pretext for avoiding the will of a majority.

This failed political delinquency Donaldson has led will guarantee the imposition of another shocking draconian budget next April, further impoverishment and dysfunction. He will only succeed in convincing more people that the north is a failed political entity. Hardly something he set out to prove.