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Brian Rowan: The DUP's move this week is ultimately an act of self-harm

The former BBC correspondent says recent political unrest in Northern Ireland follows a well-worn pattern.

Brian Rowan

THE RESIGNATION OF Stormont First Minister Paul Givan was in the tea leaves. Well signalled. Easily read.

We didn’t need to look inside the cup.

DUP party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had repeatedly warned of the possibility.

So much so that his lines started to sound like a broken record.

Stretched over a few months. This huffing and puffing that Stormont could be blown down.

History repeats, again

The developments of the past 24 hours do not represent the complete collapse of 2017 when Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister – a response to the RHI cash for ash episode of that time.

london-uk-24th-oct-2016-downing-street-london-prime-minister-theresa-may-meets-leaders-of-the-3-devolved-governments-ahead-of-the-uks-negotiations-to-leave-the-eu-pic-shows-northern-ireland-first Former first and deputy first ministers Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness. McGuinness resigned in 2017 over the long-running Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) or ‘cash for ash’ scandal. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Givan’s resignation means the Executive cannot meet.

In the way of these things, no First Minister means no deputy First Minister.

Others, including Health Minister Robin Swann remain in post. But there can be no new decisions.

Sinn Féin positioning

The Assembly will sit for now. But politics is broken again.

We wait to see what Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald means in her comments that her party will not facilitate such a scenario.

1222018-northern-ireland-talks Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD and Vice President Michelle O’Neill MLA. Yesterday, McDonald called for early Assembly elections after the DUP collapsed power-sharing. Source: Eamonn Farrell

Sinn Féin wants an early election – the results of which could create the real crisis in our politics.

What if the results see Sinn Féin as the largest party? In a position to be First Minister?Would unionists nominate a deputy First Minister in such circumstances? If not, then Stormont cannot function.

What we have now are pre-election headlines. They could become bigger, louder, as this story develops.

There is nothing certain. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wants to return to Stormont. Wants to be  First Minister.

dup-mp-for-lagan-valley-sir-jeffrey-donaldson-launches-his-campaign-to-become-leader-of-the-dup-at-the-constituency-office-of-dup-mp-gavin-robinson-in-east-belfast-picture-date-monday-may-3-2021 DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

But politics here is no longer as predictable as it once was.

There is a pattern.

The 2017 Assembly election in which unionists lost their overall majority at Stormont.

The 2019 European election when Alliance leader Naomi Long took a seat.

Then, the 2019 UK General Election, the results of which show that unionists no longer hold a majority of the Northern Ireland seats at Westminster.

 All of this explains the nervousness of now.

The latest fine mess. A politics here that has never really settled since its collapse in 2017.

It is a little over two years since Stormont was rescued. Saved from itself in a joint initiative involving the British and Irish Governments.

Then NI Secretary of State Julian Smith and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney were the lead players then.

The New Decade-New Approach agreement was offered as a take-it-or-leave-it deal.

And the Stormont parties were pushed back into Stormont after a three-year absence of government.

Boris Johnson came running to steal a slice of the success.

A later agreement, that Johnson made with the EU, is at the heart of the latest political crisis. The Irish Sea border, which in the minds of unionists is not just about the additional paperwork of trade, but creates further difference and distance between this place and the rest of the United Kingdom.

A threat to the Union itself, and an earthquake moment that turned what was meant to be a 2021 Centenary year of celebration into something representing chaos. A convulsion in politics.

Current impasse

Inside that unionist/loyalist community there was talk of collapsing Stormont.

Go for an early election.Use that centenary moment and the fears about the Union, about a border poll and about a possible Sinn Féin First Minister to try to energise the unionist vote.We have staggered through to now.

The Protocol is of course an extension of Brexit. The play out from the agreement.

The part that is left out of the script.

A reminder that politics is not just about what you want, but what comes with it.

In the turmoil, we have watched the DUP as ‘a family at war’. A description I have borrowed from the BBC political correspondent Gareth Gordon.

A party with three leaders in 2021. All the arguments and rows on the lines and in the lines for all to see.Donaldson is trying to manage a mood both inside his party and across that community.

He was waiting to see results in the UK-EU negotiations – talks that some time ago took on the look of a marathon run, rather than some short-term fix.

His patience tried, Donaldson tired. Thursday’s resignation of the First Minister Givan a result of that.

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Unionists, of course, are watching the polls in the South and the polls in the North.

Seeing Sinn Féin at the top of both.

Not saying it out loudly, but in quiet conversations, worrying about where this is leading.

All of this is the latest crossroads in our politics. All adding to the cross words of now.

Times changing.

Old certainties gone.

Stormont getting ready for another last stand.

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press.


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Brian Rowan

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