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The people of Northern Ireland want their assembly back. DUP must not be allowed to block | Simon Jenkins

NOTnothing in Boris Johnson’s post-Downing Street antics was more cynical than his dodging Wednesday’s privileges committee hearing to vote against Rishi Sunak’s Windsor executive. This reform was a hard-won attempt to salvage and revamp Johnson’s Brexit mess. The least he could do was say thank you and shut up.

The flight to the extremist wilderness of Northern Ireland has long drawn political rejection from Britain. He offered a bunker to FE Smith and Enoch Powell. If Uxbridge now abandons Johnson as MP, Antrim will no doubt make him an offer, from which he can rant and conspire against his colleagues as he pleases. But Brexit’s damage to Northern Ireland’s thwarted politics doesn’t stop there. As his trade protocol sinks below the horizon, Churchill’s ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ once again emerge in its place.

The Windsor frame is the closest circles that have been squared. As Sunak noted with some irony, Northern Ireland is now in a “unique position” in Brexit. It will benefit from free trade both with Britain and with the EU single market via Ireland. But such trade would obviously be subject to two disciplines. One must be controlled in order to prevent Belfast from becoming an illicit back door around EU border controls; the other is that exports from Northern Ireland must comply with European and British standards. There could be no smuggling or undercutting. All trade requires some sacrifice of sovereignty because all trade is inherently an economic intrusion.

As things stand, Sunak negotiated a ‘Stormont Brake’, the right for Belfast to take the disputed standards to arbitration. It is rich in itself. Scottish fishermen or Kentish winegrowers do not enjoy such a “democratic” right. But the DUP leadership under Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wants more: not just arbitration, but a Stormont-standard veto. He does not inhabit the real world.

Rishi Sunak with local business leaders at Coca-Cola HBC, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, February 28, 2023.
“A recent survey showed that even 56% of trade unionists support the Sunak deal. Rishi Sunak with local business leaders at Coca-Cola HBC, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, February 28, 2023. Photograph: Liam Mcburney/AFP/Getty Images

A recent survey by the University of Liverpool showed that even 56% of trade unionists support Sunak’s agreement. Only 17% oppose it. Most people in Northern Ireland are clearly fed up with the political quagmire they have found themselves trapped in. Yet Johnson and 21 other Tory backbenchers find themselves on side with Donaldson. These conservatives would vote for the Earth to be flat if it could undermine their party leader.

The DUP is able to use veto power over provincial executive decisions under the power-sharing constitution of the Good Friday Agreement. He can also vote Stormont and his government into vacation, as he did last year after Sinn Féin’s successful election in 2022. Then the DUP’s third vote in the 2019 general election fell to 21% , while Sinn Féin rose to 29%. This reflects the fact that open Protestants are now a minority in Northern Ireland, coupled with the expectation, particularly among young voters, that the Irish reunion is only a matter of time.

In 1921, Belfast was granted “home rule” to enable it to free itself from Catholic rule by a new government in Dublin. Protestants in the North demanded and obtained exemption from the social and cultural reforms governing the rest of the United Kingdom. It was allowed religious discrimination in housing and schooling. He duly fell asleep. Belfast, once Ireland’s industrial heartland, has declined into the shadow of booming Dublin to the south. Resting on a bed of British subsidies, Northern Ireland has stagnated into a Disney theme park in Europe’s former religious divide. Tourists now stare at the graffiti on Belfast’s garish ‘peace walls’, not believing they are still in place.

In other words, the Good Friday veto power of labor extremism has only entrenched its negativity and granted it disproportionate power. For a minority of a minority, demanding a veto on the London Treaty agreements with the EU is monstrous. This is now cancelled. But for a party founded by a religious fanatic, Ian Paisley, and now backed by just one in five voters, being able to cripple a democratic government is a mistake. Northern Ireland is desperate. Civil servants cannot increase budgets to fund cost-of-living relief or help a health service in crisis.

Polls show that the people of Northern Ireland now overwhelmingly want their assembly and executive back. In the short term, this must require the restoration of direct authority from Whitehall. This should presage the return of true democracy, under the aegis of a revised federal constitution.

If the parties of a ruling coalition choose to boycott it, the government should be able to continue. Ireland’s economic union must be protected. The rest of Britain may groan in dismay, but the issue of Northern Ireland must be reopened. The legacy of England’s former “island empire” remains an unfinished business.


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