by Frank Schnittger
Thu Jun 17th, 2021 at 11:50:15 AM EST
A crisis in the formation of a new Executive in Northern Ireland was averted last night when the British government agreed to bring forward legislation supporting the status of the Irish language and Ulster Scots dialect next October if the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly has not done so by then. The commitment to support minority languages had been included in the 2020 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement which enabled the return to devolved power sharing after three years of direct rule from London caused by the collapse of Power sharing due to increasing tensions between Sinn Féin and the DUP over this and many other issues.
A failure to reach an agreement could have resulted in snap Assembly elections and/or a return to Direct Rule as the Good Friday Agreement requires the largest party in both the nationalist and unionist traditions to nominate a First and Deputy First Minister for a power sharing executive to be formed. Sinn Féin had refused to do so in the absence of progress on the issue. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin had lost votes at the last Assembly elections because of public impatience at their failure to form an Executive and operate the structures set up by the Good Friday Agreement.
While the DUP claims not to be opposed to the legislation, in practice it had blocked its passage as it was seen as a Sinn Féin priority and a dilution of the "Britishness" of N. Ireland. The inclusion in the legislation of "Ulster Scots", a virtually extinct dialect within N. Ireland, is a sop to DUP sensitivities even though it is in no way comparable to the Irish language which is increasingly taught and spoken in Northern Ireland, mainly but not exclusively by nationalists, and with 10% of the total population claiming some proficiency in it.
With the DUP riven by divisions following the election of Poots as Leader and plummeting in the opinion polls now would have been a very bad time for the DUP to have to fight an election. This has forced Poots' hand to accept the ultimatum even though he had said he wouldn't negotiate on the issue with "a gun to my head".
However the divisions within the DUP may yet force an election as 7 out of its 8 MPs and 5 of its Lords at Westminster have written to Poots demanding that he stall the nomination of a First Minister. This may be seen as the Donaldson faction (who narrowly lost the leadership election) getting their own back, but they will be slaughtered at the polls if they collapse the power sharing institutions now. Poots had no choice but to face down their challenge and has just nominated his fellow Creationist, Paul Givan, as First Minister. The ructions will no doubt continue.
One can just imagine the politicians in Dublin, Westminster, and Brussels taking out the popcorn and sitting back while the DUP tears itself apart. With the Northern Ireland Protocol - welcomed by nationalists but now bitterly opposed by unionists dominating the news headlines, the issue is a reminder that unionists do not have a monopoly of grievances in Northern Ireland. There may have been 23 years of relative peace since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but the politics of N. Ireland are as fraught as ever, and will continue to be while the DUP plays a lead role. Every issue, be it the promotion of a language, and even the management of the pandemic becomes not just politicised, but sectarianised whenever they are involved.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is also doing well in opinion polls in the Republic.. It has overtaken Fine Gael as the largest party with 31% support, and if this trend continues will be well placed to lead the next Irish government after a general election. With Sinn Féin also poised to take the First Minister role after the next Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly elections, due by next May, we could have a situation where Sinn Féin becomes the dominant party in Ireland North and South. Ireland may not yet be united, but its political leadership could become united in one party within the next few months.
Since I wrote this story this morning in response to the agreement on a language act reached at 1.00AM this morning a lot has happened, and Poots has resigned as leader following a vote of no-confidence by his Lords, MPs and MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly). A recent Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll had already shown that the DUP vote had halved since the last election (from 32% to 16%) and were now neck and neck with the Alliance party and 9% behind Sinn Féin. If this holds after the next election, they could also lose the Deputy First Minster post and their position as the leading unionist party to the UUP or the non sectarian but unionist designated Alliance Party.
The next elections are not due until May next year but could come early if the new DUP leader collapses the executive by forcing the just appointed First Minister, Paul Givan, to resign. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, the defeated candidate at the last leadership election, could offer to re-unify the party by letting Paul Givan stay in post but that would run counter to the sentiment at the meeting which ousted Poots and which was against nominating any First Minister. No matter which way you look at it the whole thing is a mess from a DUP perspective and they have been comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Sinn Féin.
If the Alliance party takes first place among unionist parties at the next election we could be in for a new era of relatively constructive and pragmatic politics in N. Ireland, but I think it more likely that the bulk of DUP votes will go to the UUP or the even more hardline TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) party which is almost a one man band for its leader Jim Allister. Whatever happens, the Unionist monolith has been broken and things will never be quite the same again.