The DUP has finally completed its painfully long journey from dither to decision. Ending the Stormont boycott has always been the DUP’s only logical destination, but it has taken Sir Jeffrey Donaldson far too long to reach it.
We will now see a sequence of events to revive power-sharing, possibly by as early as this weekend, with a Sinn Féin first minister and a new Stormont Executive faced with fixing public services. These were already ailing but have been further crippled by two relentless years of antediluvian DUP sound and fury.
To those of us on the outside of unionism’s idiosyncratic form of entitled navel-gazing, the protest against the NI Protocol has been a source of deep frustration, bemusement and alarm. Sir Jeffrey might deserve some praise for convincing his party to get back to work, but it is difficult to be too fulsome when the whole sorry saga has been so damaging.
Self-inflicted too; it was the DUP which campaigned for a hard Brexit and which, shamefully, was a cheerleader for the charlatan Boris Johnson, who went on to author the NI Protocol. And when it did decide to abandon power-sharing in February 2022, it ran to form an alliance which included figures and organisations on unionism’s outer fringes.
The poor attendances at the anti-protocol rallies should have been a clue that there was hardly a surge in popular support – more a shrug of the shoulders – for the hardline approach.
The Supreme Court’s comprehensive dismissal of a legal challenge against the protocol was another sign that the protest was built on sand. Parliament’s overwhelming backing for the Windsor Framework was a further indication that the DUP and its fellow travellers were stuck in a cul de sac.
It became obvious in recent months that to escape, Sir Jeffrey was going to have to face down his critics, internal and external.
That process has now wheezed to its denouement. The DUP executive meeting played out in the tragi-comic fashion we have come to expect; the supposedly secret venue was leaked, a feeble TUV picket assembled at the gates, Sammy Wilson arrived at the wheel of a Ford Transit and Sir Jeffrey’s slide presentation was live-tweeted by a blogger. None of this is the hallmark of a serious, professional political party.
When the choreography to get Stormont up and running ends, the focus must shift to delivery – something no Executive has been good at. Whether two years of trashed public services was worth it for modest gains will remain a valid question. Veto politics, along with unionism’s arcane Irish Sea border disputes, needs to be put firmly in the past. After the rancour, we need power-sharing government that works for all.