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Democratic Unionists would rather see ‘funeral’ for Belfast power-sharing than accept Brexit protocol

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BELFAST — The Democratic Unionists have a typically blunt message for Liz Truss and Joe Biden, Brussels and Dublin: Meet our party’s demands for new post-Brexit trade rules or we’ll kill off Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government for good.

The cross-community government at Stormont overlooking Belfast has been unraveling since February when the DUP quit the top post in protest against the Northern Ireland protocol. That key plank of the Brexit withdrawal agreement keeps the U.K. territory bound to European Union standards on goods.

The protocol, designed to avoid enforcement of EU rules on goods crossing the land border with the Republic of Ireland, instead places those checks on British goods when they arrive at Northern Ireland ports. For the first time this makes it easier for local firms to trade with the rest of Ireland than with Britain. That divergence seems certain to grow as Britain abandons EU standards — a scenario that the DUP sees as pushing their people toward an unwanted united Ireland.

To stop this, as POLITICO heard from more than a dozen senior Democratic Unionist officials at the party’s annual conference, the DUP is willing to reject any U.K.-EU compromise plan that falls short of its core demands and won’t hesitate to embarrass Biden if, as expected, the American president visits Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s U.S.-brokered peace agreement.

As Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots put it, Biden may well “be coming over to the funeral of the Good Friday Agreement.”

None of those interviewed, among them senior figures and backroom strategists, said they expect the Northern Ireland Assembly to be functioning in time for a Biden visit — if ever again.

That’s because they expect a U.K. government led by a politically hobbled Truss to concede too much to Brussels to keep their long-running protocol dispute from escalating into a wider trade war.

Power-sharing between unionist and Irish nationalist blocs in a Stormont assembly was the central goal of the 1998 accord. But ever since the Irish republican Sinn Féin party overtook the DUP in May elections, the unionists have wielded their veto to shut the assembly and block formation of a new cross-community government.  

“Unless the protocol is replaced,” party chairman Lord Morrow told cheering delegates, “there will be no prospect, and that’s a big N-O.”

‘Detrimental’

Stormont power-sharing rules currently require Sinn Féin and the DUP jointly to fill the top posts by October 28 or the entire five-party administration will collapse ahead of a snap election, potentially on December 8 or 15.

Senior DUP figures said they doubt that the British government will actually call these elections — but expect to regain political ground lost in May if they do.

“The issues around the protocol are well known and need to be dealt with. If anybody thinks an election will help us get to that outcome, they’re mistaken,” said the DUP’s director of elections, Gordon Lyons, who remains economy minister in the Stormont government — a position he, like the others, expects to lose October 28.

“Stormont will not be restored until the protocol is sorted. We cannot be expected to take up seats as ministers and implement policies around the protocol that are detrimental to the people of Northern Ireland. You cannot force us into doing that,” Lyons told POLITICO.

While Lyons declined to forecast the outcome of a December election, senior colleagues said they expect to strengthen their vote in what would be an intensely polarized rematch with Sinn Féin.

While the May result left Sinn Féin unchanged with 27 of the assembly’s 90 seats, the Democratic Unionists lost two and slumped into second place with 25. This put an Irish nationalist, Sinn Féin’s outgoing Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, in line for the top job for the first time since power-sharing began in 1999.

The DUP’s losses reflected new competition from an even more stubborn faction, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), which vacuumed up nearly a quarter of the DUP’s usual base. Led by former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister, the TUV condemns any cooperation with Sinn Féin — the DUP’s own position until 2007.

Democratic Unionist number-crunchers expect many of those TUV votes to return home in any election re-run, in part because of unionist shock over how May’s splintered vote helped Sinn Féin seize pole position. They see maintaining an unwavering anti-protocol stance as essential to winning back these votes.

In their most conservative scenario, the Democratic Unionists would defend all 25 existing seats and regain one in North Antrim from the middle-ground Alliance Party, the big winner in the May vote. That lone win would be sufficient for the DUP to retain four of the Stormont government’s 10 ministries, whereas a power-sharing government formed on the basis of May’s result would reduce the DUP to three posts, one fewer than Sinn Féin.

But in their best-case scenario, the DUP would also regain a lost Strangford seat and gain one in west Belfast — if they can get “loyalist” hard-liners in the infamous Shankill Road to vote. The DUP fell barely 500 votes short of that target last time.

“Too many loyalists run their mouths bitching about the protocol but cannot be arsed when it comes time to vote. Trying to shift them off their sofas in the middle of winter won’t be easy,” complained one DUP party officer who thinks an election rerun will produce broadly similar results to May.

‘Mini-Brexit referendum’

Far more excited by election prospects is Paul Givan, who reluctantly resigned as the DUP first minister in February after less than eight months in the job.

Givan told POLITICO he thinks an election rerun in December is likely and will become “almost a mini-Brexit referendum again in Northern Ireland. The DUP will do well in that polarized atmosphere.”

He agrees with his close party ally Poots that the DUP’s strongest hand could be threatening to spoil any Biden visit to what would be an abandoned Stormont Parliamentary Building.

As he exchanged winks with Poots chatting with others nearby, Givan said he endorsed the vision of turning a Biden visit into a funeral wake for power-sharing. The only way to avoid this, he reckoned, would be if Biden encourages Brussels and Dublin to accept changes to the protocol that suit the DUP, not Sinn Féin, and this is unlikely.

Paul Givan | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

“You’ve got to be able to crystalize what you’re saying in a way that captures people’s attention. We’re a party renowned for plain speaking. Edwin epitomizes that approach … and what he’s saying is accurate,” Givan said.

“The U.S. did invest a lot of time and energy into helping Northern Ireland move forward. We’ll always be grateful for that,” Givan said. “But previous American administrations recognized that progress was achieved through consensus. President Biden concerns unionists because he’s too ‘green’ when it comes to Northern Ireland.”

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr., son of the party’s founder who led the DUP into its first jaw-dropping partnership with Sinn Féin, said he expects his party to make gains in a December vote. But the trouble is, he thinks so will Sinn Féin, likely keeping the Irish republicans narrowly ahead.

“Of course you always want to be a winner, always on top, always first. It strengthens your hand. An election that overturns the May result would send a strong signal to the British government, the Irish government and Europe that this protocol problem really needs to be fixed,” Paisley said.

Like the others interviewed, however, Paisley said he doesn’t see how any election result will alter the fundamental reality that most Irish nationalists oppose Brexit and accept the protocol, and most unionists the opposite. Striking a balance that gets both sides cooperating again could prove impossible.

“The key institution of the Belfast agreement is the Northern Ireland power-sharing assembly. It is not operational. I doubt it will become operational in the coming year. This crisis will run on and on,” he said. “If power-sharing is crumbling, then what is the point any longer of the Belfast agreement?”

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