Will the DUP sink a new attempt at stability in Northern Ireland?

As Rishi Sunak seeks revisions to post-Brexit border arrangements, the Democratic Unionists must decide whether to be spoilers or stakeholders

February 22, 2023
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

The term “spoilers” is well-established in Peace Studies. After tortuous processes of negotiation and legal drafting, when it comes to putting a peace agreement into practice, the actions of spoilers can undo years of careful progress. That is their intention. Spoilers can be parties or leaders who work from either inside or outside a peace process to undermine it.

Until the mid-2000s, literature on spoilers in the peace process in Northern Ireland centred largely upon the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP was, in essence, a party of protest that refused to participate in the multi-party peace talks and campaigned for a “No” in the referendum on the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. When the party decided to move from “outside” to “inside”, through election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it disrupted the process by refusing to sit in Executive meetings with Sinn Féin. After the St Andrews Agreement (2006), when Ian Paisley decided to lead the party into power-sharing with Sinn Féin, the sense was that the DUP had moved from spoiler to stakeholder.

In recent years the DUP has once again carried the mantle of a potential spoiler, threatening repeatedly to sink the UK-EU Protocol on post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland. The 1998 Agreement has been almost relegated to mere collateral damage. Some unionists who remained stubborn sceptics of the Agreement now feel that their moment is at hand. That feeling is shared by some at the opposite end of the political spectrum. The DUP’s shutting down of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in protest at the Protocol has created a vacuum which some nationalists see as hastening the course towards Irish unification.

This time, unlike a quarter of a century ago, the DUP has friends in Westminster to act as potential spoilers too, namely the European Research Group of Conservative MPs. Being a spoiler may not give you the long-term power to build, but it gives you the short-term capacity to disrupt. Time your intervention right and you could cause damage to the agreement that leaves a festering wound.

This is precisely what the UK government is seeking to avoid as it warms expectations towards a new deal with the EU on the Protocol, revising the arrangements in force since early 2021. It is also why so much media attention is focused on the DUP and ERG. The reason they are potential spoilers is because they are minorities with strong opinions, and whose influence depends on being seen to hold true to those strong opinions. The choice for those tasked with actually striking agreement is either to prove such opinions ill-founded (hard to do as they are principle-based), or to open an equally effective but more constructive channel for their expression. 

As part of the Post-Brexit Governance NI project at Queen’s University Belfast, we have been conducting regular polling in Northern Ireland since the Protocol came into effect. We have a fairly clear impression of the nature, spread and intensity of opinions about the Protocol held by voters in Northern Ireland. The first point is that those who are “anti-Protocol” may be in a minority, but they hold that view very strongly (see fig.i). There is strong support for the Protocol from those who describe themselves as strongly nationalist or slightly nationalist (around 95 per cent think it is “on balance a good thing” for Northern Ireland) or neither unionist nor nationalist (of whom three quarters think it is “a good thing”). Those who are slightly unionist have mixed opinions (half don’t think it good, a quarter think it good, and a quarter are undecided). As for voters who self-identify as “strong unionists”, nine out of ten disagree that the Protocol is “on balance a good thing”.

The DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice are the parties that represent the strong unionist position. For the majority of their supporters, the Protocol has become a top issue of concern. We recently asked respondents to rank six policy issues in order of priority. Whereas supporters of the other parties ranked healthcare, the economy and education as higher, the Protocol was the top priority for over half of DUP supporters. This is not because of border checks on seed potatoes or sausages per se; it isn’t fundamentally about the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU or regulatory alignment with the EU. It is about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The Protocol has become totemic: a perceived threat to the integrity of the union. This is why the DUP’s much-trumpeted seven tests on the acceptability of any new arrangements around the Protocol have more to do with Northern Ireland’s place in the UK than the content of the Protocol itself. 

Just as prime minister Rishi Sunak is trying to secure a new deal without splitting his party, so DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson is aware that the unity of his own party and the support it currently enjoys has been created in large part by a clear—and hardening—line of opposition to the Protocol. If a Protocol deal is achieved, it will at least improve the UK’s relationship with the EU, with some trade and diplomatic boosts. But for Donaldson to accept the deal, he not only has to face down the hardliners in his party but lead them back towards power-sharing. It would be a decision involving short-term cost, no doubt with some loss of support to the TUV. But it would benefit the stability of Northern Ireland in the longer term.

The question, then, is not whether a new compromise UK-EU deal will be welcomed by the majority in Northern Ireland—it most clearly will. Agreement would be a major step towards the stability long sought by business and political parties alike. What remains unknown is when, if ever, the DUP leadership might be ready to switch from spoiler to stakeholder once again. For that to happen, it needs to be clear that the status of stakeholder will bring more influence and weight than that of spoiler. And that, in turn, depends on the UK government determining that any agreement with the EU on the Protocol is going to last.