Ulster will suffer as long as unionism remains stuck at the crossroads

Stormont may return, but its survival is far from assured

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

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

Out of the darkness of their Stormont boycott, will Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP see the light and return to power-sharing?

We are living in times of great stress and despondency for many families. I had occasion to visit Foodstock in the Andersonstown area of west Belfast last week and witnessed workers busily compiling hundreds of food parcels to deliver to families living in silent despair, struggling to pay gas bills and have enough money to put food on the table.

It speaks volumes about Britain’s cynical engagement with this part of Ireland that, having conceded the principle regarding the need for increased public expenditure by dangling the carrot of an enhanced financial package as an incentive to try and cajole the DUP into ending its boycott, the Tory government would believe it acceptable to withhold such funds unless and until unionism’s lead party decides to re-enter Stormont.

Thus has it always been that Ulster was destined to suffer as unionism remained firmly stuck at that crossroads.

This is not a new play from the British, of course, and a similar financial incentive accompanied the securing of the New Decade, New Approach deal in January 2020. The £2.5 billion purportedly on the table now is not likely to be all that it seems and will not stretch as far as is being spun.

The DUP has run out of road and knows the only step left to take is to return to Stormont. Most parties exist to pursue and wield power, and Stormont provides the only means today by which the DUP can really do so.

The DUP have talked themselves into a corner by indulging the rhetoric of unionism’s perennial No-men

Whilst it briefly held influence over the Tory government during the Theresa May years, that is a distant memory they would sooner forget as an experience that quickly went sour.

This year’s local government elections saw Sinn Féin race further ahead, with unionist power and influence further diminished across councils, save for districts such as Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, where they exercise relative power by lighting up council premises in the colours of an Israeli state currently committing a genocidal campaign against a beleaguered Palestinian people.

Bus and train drivers are among the public sector workers taking industrial action over pay - just one of the problems a new Executive will have to deal with (Mark Marlow)

The problem for Jeffrey Donaldson is that both the cost of returning to government and the difficulties facing returning ministers are stark and present real challenges.

The Irish Sea border is not going away, and European law is going to continue to apply here regardless of how loudly and frequently the DUP huff and puff. Those seven tests are destined to haunt him and be a source of mockery and cause of internal division the moment he gives an affirmative nod.

The DUP have talked themselves into a corner by indulging the rhetoric of unionism’s perennial No-men. Their return to Stormont now will be a chastening experience, their hope that grassroots unionism has quietly moved ahead of dissenting voices both inside and outside the party tent.

The new East-West Council being floated as cover for Donaldson’s volte-face will be a meaningless talking shop easily dismissed as a body with a short shelf life. There remains deep-rooted opposition to entering an Executive led by a Sinn Féin First Minister for a party and people accustomed to believing in their pre-eminent place in society.

Furthermore, any new Executive is also going to be faced with formidable challenges in spite of the financial package, which will not stretch to cover all areas. Public sector reform in health, education and other areas is required, and proposing and implementing new revenue streams will hardly be a source of popularity.

But, ultimately, whether Jeffrey Donaldson decides to return now or after the Westminster election, it may not make much of a difference to the prospects of this new Executive faring any better than those that preceded it.

The root problem remains the same. It is the very arrogance and sense of entitlement that leads a unionist leader to conceive of and declare seven tests that must be passed as a condition of serving in government that betrays a mindset not truly at peace with living, sharing or governing as equals. Stormont may return, but its survival is far from assured.