DUP leader preps party for move back into Belfast power-sharing

BELFAST — Jeffrey Donaldson can give the impression of being one of those statues of the Virgin Mary that, back in the 1980s, kneeling crowds of devout Irish Catholics convinced themselves were moving. Stare at something long enough and even the most immovable object can appear to move.

This could turn out to be another trick of the eye. But it looks like Sir Jeffrey the Immaculate is finally moving, two years after he launched his confrontation with the U.K. government over the post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and one year after the collapse of its power-sharing government atop the hill at Stormont.

His leader’s speech Saturday to the Democratic Unionist Party faithful did attempt to keep all options open. He restated his willingness to keep saying no to the Windsor Framework, the compromise struck by the U.K. and the EU in February that seeks to simplify and reduce the level of checks and restrictions on goods flowing into Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. — the union Donaldson’s DUP so ardently defends.

But the core of Donaldson’s message stressed the need, someday, for the DUP to end its boycott on power-sharing with the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin — because this obstruction of democracy does even more damage to that fraying union.

“We must not allow republicans to perpetuate the myth that Northern Ireland is a failed and ungovernable political entity,” Donaldson told the conference, arguing that an empty Stormont fuels republicans’ demands for a referendum on uniting Ireland.

Addressing those in the party who would prefer to keep decision-making over Northern Ireland in London, not in tandem with Sinn Féin at Stormont, he argued: “Time and again, Westminster has imposed laws upon us that are not in tune with the needs or the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. You cannot on the one hand repeatedly condemn successive [U.K.] governments for letting us down and then argue with credibility that we are better off ruled by those very same people, who do not really understand what makes this place tick.”

Donaldson drove the point home. “Having no say in our future will not be a recipe for success,” he said, pointedly describing Stormont’s revival as a matter of when, not if.

Core complaints

Donaldson sat down with POLITICO after his speech to explain where negotiations with London stand — and how close he might be to landing a deal that he can offer to his party without splitting it in two.

The DUP wants the Conservative government to provide a legislative package that addresses his party’s core complaints about the Withdrawal Agreement’s original Northern Ireland trade protocol and the successor Windsor Framework. The negotiators — Donaldson and key lieutenants on one side, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and officials from Downing Street and the Cabinet Office on the other — since June have been trading position papers and meeting regularly in London and Belfast.

“I expect the tempo will increase now as parliament resumes. We’ll see more engagement with the government. They know where the gaps are and it’s up to both us and them to close those gaps,” Donaldson said.

The legislative package of bills, amendments and statutory instruments must cover three areas, Donaldson said: reducing checks on goods staying in Northern Ireland to a bare minimum, even lower than what the Windsor deal identifies; reclaiming Northern Ireland’s equal trading rights within the U.K. as declared in Article 6 of the original 1800 Act of Union; and “future-proofing any arrangements put in place so that our ability to trade within the United Kingdom is protected into the future.”

This latter goal is considered the most problematic of all, since future divergence in rules on goods standards — either by London or Brussels — could put Northern Irish manufacturers in a bind as to which rules must prevail.

The DUP once would have hoped to see at least some of this legislation published by now, but Donaldson sees this negotiation stretching on indefinitely until London presents a full package that he can sell — with unanimity — to his party’s entire 12-member officer board.

“There has been progress in some areas but there remain gaps in other areas,” he said. “We will eventually get the agreement that is required, but I can’t say when. The issues we still have to resolve are significant and I don’t know how long it will take to resolve them.”

One of those party officers, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, said he considers it unlikely that the current U.K. government will give the DUP what it needs legally or financially ahead of a Westminster election he expects to happen by May — but a potential Labour administration could resolve the trade tensions created by Brexit in different ways.

“Given the attitude of this government, I don’t believe that any legislative package is going to meet our demands,” Wilson told POLITICO. “But maybe different people will be controlling the U.K. government who would be much more robust in those assurances.”

Wilson, whose constituency office is in the port of Larne, a core battleground for how post-Brexit rules are supposed to work, says the Windsor Framework’s new system — a “green” lane for Northern Ireland goods facing only 10 percent checks and a “red” lane for goods bound for the Republic of Ireland and the wider EU requiring 100 percent checks — isn’t being consistently enforced yet.

Based on his recent chats with truckers, customs officers and agriculture inspectors, Wilson says staff shortages and inadequate inspection facilities at the ports of Larne and Belfast mean “lorries with Irish registrations which should be going through the red lane, because they’re clearly going south into the republic, are just waved through.”

Wilson calculates that a future Labour government would reverse some of the Conservatives’ Brexit decisions and bring Britain back into line with EU single market rules. Such moves to restore lost British access to EU markets would eliminate the need for Northern Ireland-specific checks.

Wilson is emphatic that he won’t vote to accept any Conservative legislative package that doesn’t provide cast-iron guarantees, and Donaldson, whom he supports, knows this.

While not directly involved in the dialogue with London, Wilson says he doesn’t need to be.

“This is the good thing about our party. I and the other officers will take the final decision. I don’t really care about being involved in the nitty-gritty of the negotiations,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, I know this is not going to be foisted on us by a small cabal of people.”