The political stalemate at Stormont isn’t anything new; nor are the strategic blunders that the DUP has and seems to be continuing to pursue.
That said, the NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP is seemingly, going to plough ahead with an election that no party wants, will stop any negotiation dead in its tracks (arguably putting it into reverse) and lead to the same electoral outcome, albeit with minimal expected MLA seat changes. The upshot is basically that by December 2022, we will all be worse-off, and the UK Government will still not have delivered what it promised to unionists – no border between GB and NI. Casting your mind back, you’ll remember that Boris Johnson’s government previously threw the DUP under the proverbial Glider after promising that there wouldn’t be a trade border in the Irish Sea, so there’s a reason why unionists are now animated over this Brexit impact that they (in a stroke of hubris) supported.
Despite all that, a monkey could have designed the DUP’s predictable approach to collapse the Assembly and run down the clock; it’s definitely the wrong call. Not known for its progressive politics or dynamism, the DUP suffers from chronic inflexibility and continues to play within the rules set by its English masters, who they ironically think view them as equals; a long term strategic miscalculation. Collum Eastwood gets it, and his message cuts through that the Tories don’t care about NI folk. Clearly, the DUP want to focus minds in Westminster to sort the Protocol, but instead the UK Government view them like an estranged partner that won’t stop calling and texting (and yes I just assumed the gender of the DUP ship); they just don’t get the message.
So, instead of collapsing the NI Assembly, the DUP should (and still could), swallow its pride and withdraw its MPs from Westminster whilst concurrently re-establishing the NI Assembly. Instead of vying between both nationalist/unionist blocs, the common point of failure for this particular issue is the UK Government. The DUP often argue that they are there fighting NI’s corner, but that’s not gone very well so far now, with the principle of consent being wholly mutated by the Tories to suit their own purposes? There will also be concerns in the DUP ranks about hypocrisy in light of their criticisms of Sinn Fein’s historic abstentionism, but that’s the least of their worries and entirely navigable. Sinn Fein have actually proved the inverse is correct; abstentionism at Westminster appears to improve results for their community, possibly through the creation of discrete and bespoke lines of communication direct to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and Ministers.
Everyone knows (even those that vote for them), that the DUP actually exert very little influence, question their altruistic motivations and (arguably) benefit from the occasional Sri-Lankan mini-break. And let’s face it, the dynamism demonstrated between Jim Shannon and Sammy Wilson on the Westminster platform is hardly a vote winner for the party; there are also only limited times someone can be wrong before it just becomes futile.
Ultimately though, this would transfer the democratic deficit back to Westminster. The only NI representatives attending would be one from the Alliance Party and two from the SDLP. With 83% of elected representatives from NI’s two largest parties not attending (even temporarily), it would provide a warning flare to the UK Government at a time of English focussed Westminster instability that the system is broken (which it is anyway) whilst gently fanning the flames of English nationalism that is quietly simmering under the surface. Also, they could save face with the NI electorate by participating in the institutions whilst continuing to pledge allegiance to the King; I’m not convinced any NI resident feels particularly close to the circus that is Westminster and hasn’t for some time.
Next (and this would cause even the most ardent unionist to choke), the DUP should start to acquiesce on the potential of a border poll, which they would obviously campaign to Remain (if such nomenclature can be borrowed from the Brexit debacle); that would reinforce their democratic credentials at least. Importantly, they should then position themselves to tentatively support a border poll around the same time that First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has publicly stated her aspirations are for Scotland’s Indyref2. The DUP’s message would obviously be very clear that unionism would win by the grace of god or other such compelling arguments they are prone to use. Both referenda balls sit in Westminster’s court, so to speak, but with twelve years of evidence of the Conservative Party’s two settings: 1) incompetence and 2) complacency, there is no way that they would have the wherewithal and bandwidth to fight on two fronts; NI and Scotland. The NIO’s immediate reaction would be to move to defend and avoid the personal failure for any Prime Minister associated with dissolution of the UK, and then we might finally see some results.
That said, this is the nuclear option for the DUP and comes with a duffle bag full of risk; but what’s wrong with giving people the choice in a referendum? The result would be the equivalent of force feeding the Tories their own medicine; something they should be familiar with from their 1970s antics.
But alas, everything you’ve read is for nought, because the DUP play (badly) within the rules that are set. Their inability to criticise the British establishment more than expressing mild disappointment demonstrates their weakness at properly representing their community; they are not disruptors and their predilection to suckle at the teat, beg deference and ingratiate themselves with their English rulers, has hobbled them. Instead, they continue to criticise the EU and Irish Government, but to no effect other than to get a few more votes. So, ordinary unionists are right to be worried. The approach would be analogous to the NI football supporters’ approach who pray for any other team to beat England, regardless of who it is. NI parties could at least temporarily unite against their current common adversary to extract results, and finally export the Tory lack of integrity and broken promises back to where it belongs – Westminster.