Pulling down Stormont was always about more than the invisible Irish Sea border

Even if the DUP go back to power-sharing, another crisis may not be far away

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaking in the house of Commons with Ian Paisley sitting behind
Jeffrey Donaldson wants to get the DUP back to Stormont, but hasn't prepared unionist grassroots for the reversal of the boycott

Over-egged by some as his David Trimble moment, Jeffrey Donaldson’s speech delivered to a sparsely populated House of Commons last Wednesday provided the clearest signal yet that he was finally going to step forward and attempt to lead political unionism out of its self-imposed exile.

The tone and content of the DUP leader’s words clearly sought to put his opponents within unionism - including those in his own party - on the defensive. The move drew a warm response from a political class at Westminster which had almost given up on the prospect of the DUP leader acting in a manner befitting his status.

Jeffrey’s difficulty will be in the fact this U-turn has not been preceded by preparatory statements and actions which would have helped those in support of his position to sell such a deal to a grassroots sold a fairy tale of seven tests needing met before they could live happily ever after.

The DUP’s reluctance to return to power-sharing has always been rooted in something much deeper than merely antipathy to an invisible Irish Sea border which has not yet significantly impacted upon the day to day lives of most people here, their voters included.

Pulling Stormont down was - and remains - a gesture signalling a collective sense of discontent at the pace of change taking place all around us in this contested land.

&nbsp;<span style="font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 13.3333px;">Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, John McGregor, Jamie Bryson</span><span style="font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 13.3333px;">, Kate Hoey and Ben Habib during an anti-Northern Ireland protocol rally and parade, organised by North Antrim Amalgamated Orange Committee, in Ballymoney, Co Antrim. Picture by</span><span style="font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 13.3333px;">&nbsp;Liam McBurney/PA Wire</span>
It may have been a blunt instrument, but the Stormont boycott gave the DUP a way of rallying the different factions within unionism; pictured at an anti-protocol rally in Ballymoney in 2022 are Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, John McGregor, Jamie Bryson, Kate Hoey and Ben Habib

The DUP, and unionism more generally, have been unable to prevent the introduction of Irish Language legislation. To make matters worse, unionism has lost the numbers and political strength to stop local councils rolling out Irish language street signs.

They aren’t in a position to prevent the redevelopment of Casement Park and, most importantly, nothing they have said or done - no matter how loudly or angrily - has halted the momentum behind the growing campaign for a border poll and constitutional change.

The fact the DUP have endeavoured to resist and frustrate all of the above illustrates how much ill at ease political unionism remains with the shifting political terrain.

The Belfast that saw a flags protest over a decade ago now elects only 17 unionist councillors for a 60-seat council.

The bad news for Jeffrey and his party is that this situation is only set to worsen, with the growth of Sinn Féin in the south further fuelling support for a reorientation of politics on an island-wide basis.

It may have been a blunt instrument, but the Stormont boycott provided the DUP a means of rallying the different factions within broader unionism behind a united cause and position. That this helped shore up electoral support for the party was an anticipated bonus, but one signalling the dangers that lay ahead once Donaldson decided to fracture the relationship cultivated with the hardline axis represented by the TUV and an angry assortment of social media-based fringe loyalist figures.

The perceived humiliation of serving alongside Michelle O’Neill as First Minister has served to further disincentivise an early return, with the enhanced Sinn Féin and Alliance representation in the new Assembly chamber merely adding to the reasons against hastening back to Stormont.

Yet return they must.

Making Northern Ireland work provides the only credible means of frustrating or even delaying the momentum towards constitutional change.

The Belfast that saw a flags protest over a decade ago now elects only 17 unionist councillors for a 60-seat council

Yet, ironically, bringing political unionism back within the established political system and institutions could also assist the Irish unity campaign as it confirms the weakness of a unionism which has lost the cutting edge veto it once wielded.

Making the north work can advance the case for unity by reducing the financial implications of constitutional change and illustrating the logic and effectiveness of island-wide thinking and planning, soon to become more pronounced due to the success of Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland project.

Faced with no clear path to guarantee the future they desire, it is far from certain the DUP’s conduct won’t precipitate another Stormont crisis in the not too distant future even if this one gets resolved soon.