The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has played a key role in the Brexit dispute for years. Their party leader Jeffrey Donaldson explains why the DUP is torpedoing the formation of a government in Northern Ireland in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol – and why his trust in Prime Minister Johnson is limited.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland is a thoroughly conservative party, more comparable to the evangelical wing of the American Republicans than to the British Tories. If the DUP had its way, abortion would still be illegal for Northern Irish women today. However, the DUP is notorious among EU diplomats and politicians above all as an uncomfortable actor in the epic Brexit drama: Whenever London and Brussels are at odds over the Northern Ireland issue, the largest unionist party seems to ensure that the negotiating poker gets even more confused.
DUP refuses to form a government
Now the DUP again plays a key role. Since the regional elections in early May, the unionist party in Belfast, which despite losses is the strongest, has refused all talks to form a government with Sinn Fein, the largest Irish nationalist force. Since Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists can only govern together under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, political activity has come to a standstill. DUP boss Jeffrey Donaldson justified the boycott in an interview with journalists in a London pub with the Northern Ireland protocol: “The protocol degrades Northern Ireland to a colony of Brussels and separates us economically from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
Donaldson therefore welcomes the fact that Boris Johnson’s government sent a new Brexit bill to Parliament in mid-June. This is intended to give Great Britain the authority to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated with Brussels in 2019. The protocol provides that Northern Ireland effectively remains in the EU internal market, which is intended to prevent a customs border on the island of Ireland and shifts goods controls to the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Now Johnson wants to relax the controls and free Northern Ireland from the obligation to comply with internal market rules.
These plans have sparked outrage in Brussels. And yet the DUP has not yet returned to the negotiating table in Belfast. Donaldson explains that it is necessary to wait until the bill has made “real progress” in parliamentary deliberations. Loyalty to London is a form of identity for the unionists, but they have often been disappointed. “Boris Johnson would not be the first and probably not the last Prime Minister to weaken promises,” says Donaldson. “That’s why actions are better than words.”
Trade war is unrealistic
Donaldson is an affable man who takes his positions with verve. “A trade war between the UK and the EU is unrealistic because the EU would have to set up a hard border on the island of Ireland,” he says. He does not believe that Northern Ireland companies should comply with EU rules despite competing with European competitors in the EU market. And the fact that Northern Ireland recovered economically from the corona pandemic faster than all British regions with the exception of London has nothing to do with simplified access to the EU market.
For Donaldson, the protocol fundamentally contradicts the consensus principle enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. In the regional parliament, a majority of nationalists and the non-denominational Alliance Party supports the protocol. But the DUP and other unionists see their identity threatened, especially since Sinn Fein wants to seize the moment to push for a united Ireland.
Brexit fuels tensions
It is undisputed that in the former civil war region, majority decisions against the explicit will of a religious group are problematic. However, the Brexit vote of 2016 already contradicted the consensus principle: At that time, not only the nationalists voted against leaving the EU, but also a clear majority of all Northern Irish voters. Now the implementation of the hard Brexit is heating up sectarian tensions.
But there is no sign of a quick solution: in Brussels, confidence in Boris Johnson has been shattered. In London, Johnson’s future is uncertain and deliberations on the new Brexit law are provoking resistance and could drag on. In Northern Ireland, the DUP is under pressure from unionist hardliners, but many citizens are angry about the political deadlock. The British government will sooner or later have to hold elections in Northern Ireland if there is no regional government by October. Even if Jeffrey Donaldson puts on a poker face in the Brexit dispute, he does not have the time factor on his side.
Donaldson and his DUP have been unfortunate in the Brexit saga from the start. In 2016, the party supported leaving the EU – at the risk that Brexit would destabilize Northern Ireland. Then the DUP held a key position in Westminster as a supporter of Theresa May’s minority government, but defeated their soft Brexit deal. Finally, the Unionists threw themselves at Boris Johnson, who, contrary to his promises, agreed the protocol with the EU, including the customs border in the Irish Sea.
No quick fix
Does Donaldson regret Brexit today? “No, the EU is on its way to becoming the United States of Europe.” At the same time, he presents himself as a pragmatist and emphasizes that he is striving for close cooperation with the EU and that an amicable solution is possible. 95 percent of all goods that would be exported from the UK to Northern Ireland never made it to Ireland in the EU internal market. He is therefore convinced that the controls can be reduced and he appeals to the EU states to expand the Commission’s negotiating mandate.