The DUP's great gamble
101 years after it was created Northern Ireland is poised for a Sinn Fein First Minister. But that is not going to happen yet, and may never come to pass.
The DUP is now gambling the future of the Assembly on gaining the support of the Prime Minister in scrapping the Irish protocol. A Prime Minister who is currently clinging to power whilst awaiting possible further fines from the Metropolitan Police for breaking laws he himself enacted.
This same prime minister who has hitherto shown little insight into, understanding of or empathy with Northern Ireland.
In February 2018 as foreign secretary Boris Johnson had likened the challenge of avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland to the boundaries between different boroughs of London.
He said money was "invisibly" taken from people travelling between Camden and Westminster when he was London mayor.
He was also alleged by Financial Times journalist Philip Stephens to have asked colleagues why then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar "isn't called Murphy like all the rest of them".
The party will also be dependent on Foreign Secretary Liz Truss who is apparently desperate to succeed Johnson and believes breaking an international treaty will build support for her by currying favour with the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party.
They are being joined by Suella Braverman the Attorney General who is apparently of the view the NI is currently in the grip of “civil unrest” and that would legitimise scrapping much of the Protocol.
All this when the invasion of Ukraine makes it imperative that Europe looks strong and united. And with the US administration apparently hostile to any unilateral moves from the UK and opposition within the Tory Party, many observers think this is all a bluff.
But if anyone’s bluffing, it is not the DUP whose leader has yet to commit to the Assembly and says he will retain his seat at Westminster until the protocol issue is resolved. He has therefore relinquished the seat he won at the Election even before he has had the chance to sit on it and already been replaced.
In the meantime MLAs will sign the register, meaning they get paid but the party is also to block the election of a Speaker, meaning the Assembly can’t sit.
This in turn means that although we will still have Ministers in place for a while yet, we’ll have no Programme for Government, no collective leadership and therefore no effective means of providing policy responses as Northern Ireland slips into crisis.
This may be what the DUP and the TUV and those who voted for them want. But everyone else has been held hostage, rendering the Election and all the work that went into it meaningless.
These are some of the issues we’ll not be tackling as a result.
The health system is under huge pressure, all parties agree not just how important and urgent this is, but there is growing consensus between them as to how to go about it. But the bold measures necessary will involve strong leadership, inter-departmental co-operation and, crucially multi-year budgets. All these will require a proper, functioning executive.
The cost-of-living crisis is tightening and is leaving struggling families with the choice between eating properly or heating their home. There is also a consensus about the urgency of this issue and the need for measures on energy, food and fuel prices to protect the vulnerable, this too is urgent.
Then there’s the crisis in schools which has left the most vulnerable, for example those with Special Needs, worst affected.
And as the think tank Pivotal correctly argues we desperately need a strategy to increase our skills base and attract better jobs, otherwise our economy will slip further and further behind.
We also need to invest in our infrastructure and develop a strategy for dealing with climate change.
These are issues of critical importance that affect all of us but inaction hits the disadvantaged hardest.
All this week trade bodies, civic groups and professional organisations have been queueing up to deliver the same message: we can’t afford another period without government.
This is not to deny the importance of the protocol which is clearly troubling a significant minority of the population but there is no justification for not dealing with any of our other urgent pressing concerns. They can and should be fixed, it is within our powers to do what is needed and our elected representatives have the mandate.
The path we are now set on is to create a dependency around creating a government which may be impossible to deliver on, even if it would dearly like to. We will in effect be gambling on the good will and integrity of a Johnson-led government to persuade the EU to climb down or else to start a trade war with allies, perhaps including the USA, whilst we are simultaneously working with them in Ukraine. And good luck with that.
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