DUBLIN — The Democratic Unionists dumped a lump of coal in the British government’s Christmas stocking Monday, declaring that their party will maintain its stubborn blockade of Northern Ireland’s cross-community government into the new year — a deadlock that could take billions in extra U.K. finance to break.
Hopes were dashed of a pre-Christmas breakthrough following London’s conditional offer last week of an extra £2.5 billion for local leaders to spend together over the coming four years if they form a new coalition of British unionists and Irish nationalists in line with Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris specified that this extra finance — far more than in previous agreements to sustain or revive power-sharing — would start to flow from London to Belfast only if the DUP first agreed to resume its crisis-prone coalition with the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin following a nearly two-year breakdown. Power-sharing rules require any government to include the two largest parties on each side of Northern Ireland’s divide.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had wanted a deal before the House of Commons begins its Christmas recess Tuesday evening. Two well-placed British officials told POLITICO that Sunak also made provisional plans to fly to Belfast later this week in the event of a celebratory deal to resurrect the legislature and administration at Stormont Parliament Building. After Tuesday, the U.K. Parliament won’t sit again until January 8.
Critically, the breakthrough blueprint taking shape in the background following months of U.K.-DUP negotiations requires a bill amending the 2020 U.K. Internal Market Act — key legislation that paved the way for special post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland. Sunak and Heaton-Harris had hoped to introduce this bill Tuesday with the DUP’s critical endorsement.
But Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the DUP’s rank-and-file members in a weekend email that this bill and Heaton-Harris’ financial package still weren’t good enough.
Donaldson insists any amending bill must sufficiently reassure unionists that Northern Ireland — which, under terms of the U.K.’s Withdrawal Agreement from the EU, is the only U.K. region still required to observe EU goods rules — won’t be allowed to grow economically distant from Britain and ever closer to the Republic of Ireland, the Irish nationalist objective.
To unionist dismay, the post-Brexit rules agreed between the U.K. and EU allow Northern Irish firms to trade more easily with the Republic of Ireland than with Britain. That reality has been only partly addressed by Sunak’s Windsor Framework agreement with the EU unveiled to much fanfare in February 2023. Maintaining barrier-free trade with the republic is considered critical for Northern Ireland’s farmers, given that much of their beef, milk, chicken, pork and lamb is processed in the south, but keeping the north subject to the same EU goods rules as apply in the rest of Ireland comes at the cost of new checks and restrictions on goods coming from Britain.
Donaldson, who didn’t speak to reporters, signaled through deputies that his party would not be pushed by any U.K. government deadline into accepting a package it still didn’t consider strong enough to be sold to the party’s divided supporters. According to opinion polls, most DUP voters back Donaldson’s ongoing obstruction of resumed power-sharing, a process that began with the resignation of the government’s first minister in February 2022 followed by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly eight months later.
With no sign of DUP movement, the diplomatic clock is quickly running out at the talks at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, where figures from all five parties in the previous Stormont coalition have rejected as inadequate the U.K.’s proposed £2.5 billion extra support, one week after Heaton-Harris outlined the package in private. Heaton-Harris is expected to announce a yuletide pause to the talks following a round-table chat Tuesday with Donaldson and other local party leaders.
Sinn Féin, which sent only advisers and no senior politicians to Monday’s talks in a sign that they no longer thought a pre-Christmas breakthrough was possible, denounced the DUP for needlessly dragging out an agreement to restore their uneasy partnership.
“The DUP could send its entire party leadership up to Hillsborough Castle. They’re not doing any business with anybody,” Conor Murphy, the Sinn Féin politician who was finance minister in the last government, told reporters in the border town of Newry.
Murphy said the pledged extra U.K. Treasury money should flow quickly to tackle Northern Ireland’s U.K.-worst waiting times for medical appointments and deliver long-delayed pay hikes that have already been provided to public sector workers, including teachers and nurses, in England, Scotland and Wales. He said the British should stop pegging this essential aid to any DUP move.
Murphy said Heaton-Harris needed “to call this process to an end, to call time on endless rounds of negotiations where they keep providing cover for the DUP — and this is the thanks that they get for it.” If the DUP doesn’t quickly resume cooperation, he said, the U.K. government should “move on with other plans” and govern Northern Ireland in partnership with the Republic of Ireland, an idea loathed by unionists.
But Gordon Lyons, the economy minister in the last government, insisted that the DUP was right to keep rejecting what was on offer until it received stronger legislative guarantees of Northern Ireland’s future place in the U.K. and longer-term financial commitments. He noted that Sunak had delivered the Windsor deal because of DUP demands for change and would need to provide more changes.
“It’s because we haven’t given in to the deadlines or the threats from others that we have been able to make substantial progress. Much more work needs to be done,” Lyons said.
“We want a functioning government on a sustainable basis, so that we don’t find ourselves in this situation again in six or nine or 12 months,” Lyons said. “We’re not led by any Christmas deadlines. Other people have put deadlines in place. Other people have hyped this up. We haven’t.”
Politicians from smaller moderate parties shared Sinn Féin’s criticism of the DUP, but also agreed with the DUP that the £2.5 billion offer wasn’t sufficient to deal with chronic underfunding of services in what is one of the U.K.’s poorest corners.
Eóin Tennyson of the center-ground Alliance Party, which seeks support from both sides of the community, said the total package needed to be north of £4 billion and was perhaps £500 million below what was immediately needed to meet U.K. government-approved pay awards and ease Northern Ireland’s medical care crisis.
“With what’s currently on the table,” Tennyson said, “the [Northern Ireland] Executive would be in financial trouble again within 18 months.”