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Jeffrey Donaldson and Boris Johnson

Jeffrey Donaldson and Boris Johnson. Photo: No 10 / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Following Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP and the Tories are undermining the Good Friday Agreement with cynical games, writes Chris Bambery

The Democratic Unionist Party are holding the majority of people in Northern Ireland to ransom and Boris Johnson is desperate to appease them and will jet into Belfast to meet them. The Daily Mail greeted this news with the headline: ‘Now will the EU listen? DUP blocks Sinn Féin grab for power, as Boris Johnson is set to visit Northern Ireland for crunch talks’ (brevity is not one of its virtues). It added that Johnson was ‘not bluffing’ over his threats to rip up the protocol.

After the recent elections in Northern Ireland, in which Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party, I said here that the Democratic Unionist Party was in danger of behaving like a wee child who, losing the game, stalks off with the ball. Well, lo and behold, they have gone off in a huff, determined to stop Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister by wrecking the Northern Ireland Assembly and stopping the formation of a power sharing administration. Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the leader of the largest party becomes First Minister and the leader of the second largest, Deputy First Minister, but that requires the Assembly to meet and approve the posts, and create a coalition administration between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

On Thursday the DUP refused to vote for a Speaker for the Northern Ireland Assembly, blocking that election and thus preventing the Assembly from functioning. It has also refused to nominate one of its Assembly members as deputy First Minister. This means that no executive can be formed under Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill. She pointed out that by doing both the DUP had ‘punished the electorate.’

Tory opportunism and cynicism

The DUP do not want an administration led by the Republicans, but neither does the British government. Johnson and Liz Truss are also behaving like wee children in a huff by threatening to rip up the Protocol over Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU, which rules out any hard border between the northern state and the Republic of Ireland. Any such border would breach the Good Friday Agreement, alienating the UK from not just Dublin and Brussels but Washington, which is committed to maintain that Agreement.

Ever since the Brexit referendum, Downing Street has treated the DUP as if they represent the people of Northern Ireland, ignoring a rather salient point; the majority voted to remain in the European Union and the DUP were in the minority in supporting Leave.

Now Johnson is treating the DUP as if they, not Sinn Féin, were the party with the biggest support. He is also ignoring the fact that a significant tranche of former Unionist voters, alienated by the DUP’s behaviour, plumped for the Alliance Party, which does not identify as Unionist or Nationalist.

The entire basis of power sharing is being imperilled by the tactics of both the DUP and the Tory government; and in particular, the toxic alliance between the Tory Foreign Secretary, the Economic Research Group (ERG) and the DUP. It is even more outrageous that this should be happening at a time when families everywhere are suffering under the effects of an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, and when the health and social care services in the north are consumed by systemic crisis.

The DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, in alliance with Johnson and Truss, wants not just to tear up the Protocol, but also crudely to dismantle key parts of the Good Friday Agreement. Having lost out to Sinn Féin, the DUP sees a united Ireland down the road, and in those circumstances has no desire to maintain the Good Friday Agreement, which allows for an all-Ireland referendum on ending partition if both Dáil Éireann, the Republic’s parliament, and the Northern Ireland Assembly support holding such a poll (unity could only happen if there was a majority for it in both states).

The fact Donaldson and the DUP should once again be in cahoots with Johnson, after he lied to them by promising there would not be a trade border between Britain and Northern Ireland, underlines the cynicism of all this. Johnson wants to play to the pro-Brexit majority of Tory members, and to those Brexiteers who voted Tory at the last Westminster election in the north of England and the Midlands.

Why a grassroots campaign is needed 

Now is not the time to focus on criticisms of the Good Friday Agreement, which requires those elected to the Assembly to register as Unionists and Nationalists, leaving those that don’t in a secondary position, and also reinforcing the division within Northern Ireland. Writing in An Phoblacht, Declan Keraney, Sinn Féin’s National Chair made the following call:

‘The EU should continue to stand strong against the belligerence and bad faith of the Tories … The EU, and the US administration, must hold firm on the GFA, and the primacy of international treaties and international law.’

He also calls on the Dublin government ‘to step firmly up to the mark, and adopt an unequivocal position against the destructive behaviour of both the DUP and the Tories.’ The problem is that none of the three, Dublin, Brussels or Washington, can be trusted to put the interests of the Irish people first. The EU is an undemocratic, neoliberal organisation which has ridden roughshod over small countries like Greece.

The US under Joe Biden has committed itself to maintaining the Good Friday Agreement, but while the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the UK is much over-egged, in London there are deep links between the two states at the military and intelligence level, and those can always trump (apologies there) a commitment to the Agreement. That’s certainly Johnson’s hope.

The most revealing thing is the silence from official channels in the Irish Republic. The Dublin government is a coalition of what were the two establishment parties who traditionally shared office, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, alongside the Greens. It was formed after Sinn Féin took the greatest number of votes in the Republic’s 2020 general election. It was formed on the basis of keeping the Republicans out of government and all three have an interest in marginalising Sinn Féin. None of the three have campaigned for Irish unity, and fear it would upset their pro-business state. They cannot be trusted to help defend the Good Friday Agreement.

In this situation, it is important to mobilise across Ireland, in North America, Europe and in the UK against the DUP’s wrecking campaign and against Johnson. A similar campaign is also needed in favour of a united Ireland.

Sinn Féin President, Mary Lou McDonald, has said if the party gets into office in Dublin it would go for an all-Ireland referendum in five years’ time. Such a period would be needed to win the argument that unity can benefit all the people of Ireland, not least in the Republic itself. But campaigning to win that argument should commence now with the construction of a united, grassroots campaign.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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