After a night of meetings, DUP leader Geoffrey Donaldson pushed his party to say “yes” to a coalition with Sinn Fein. The British government has exerted pressure to achieve this goal, promising London three billion pounds sterling. It also managed to convince pro-British unionists that Northern Ireland, despite a customs border on the Irish Sea, remained part of the United Kingdom, and that it did not have to follow new EU laws. There has always been a fear within the Democratic Unionist Party that the umbilical cord with the British mainland would be severed by Brexit.
Good Friday Agreements
The latest governance crisis arose after Sinn Féin, which supports Irish reunification, won elections two years ago. These elections were necessary because the Democratic Unionist Party blew up the coalition. Suddenly there was the possibility of Sinn Féin appointing the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and the DUP the Deputy Prime Minister. The Good Friday Agreements, which brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998, stipulated that the two largest parties would automatically share power at Stormont, the government building in Belfast.
This political shift coincided with the Democratic Unionist Party's dissatisfaction with the Brexit agreement concluded during the era of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In this document, London and Brussels acknowledged that there would be a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This “maritime frontier” made the Northern Irish loyal to Britain feel isolated from the mother country. For the DUP, this was once again an own goal. After all, the party was in favor of Brexit. Northern Ireland has become a battleground in the battle between the UK and the European Union.
One year ago, the EU caved to British objections by exempting goods destined for Northern Ireland, and therefore not ending up in Ireland, from checks. The so-called Windsor Agreement failed to end the impasse. The moderate Donaldson wanted this, but was met with resistance from hardliners within his own party. At the same time, public opinion turned against the Democratic Unionist Party. Recent weeks have witnessed strikes and protests against the absence of the government. Necessary investments had to be eliminated.
During a news conference Tuesday morning, Donaldson said that after five hours of meetings, the party council approved his proposal to work together. “Provided that the agreements between the DUP and the UK government are actually implemented, the package of measures provides a good basis for our party’s return to government.” There will be discussions in the coming days about dividing ministerial positions. The Northern Ireland Board will be chaired by Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill.
The DUP's victory is good news for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. In the run-up to the British elections, which are expected to be held in the fall, he does not want any unrest and discontent in the province, as Northern Ireland is also called. For Sinn Féin, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army, the leadership in Northern Ireland represents a step towards the dream of Irish reunification, something that worries the Democratic Unionist Party and other pro-British parties. Within a year, Sinn Féin also hopes to win the premiership in elections in Ireland.
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