Any change in the DUP hard line stance will have to wait until after the local elections on 18 May
April 11, 2023 5:04 pm(Updated 5:05 pm)
President Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland, North and South, this week highlights the extent to which the US is now a central player in the politics of Northern Ireland, and in its turn Northern Ireland is a crucial issue in the relationship between the US and UK.
Biden will spend one day in Belfast meeting Rishi Sunak, among many others, and the rest of the week in the Irish Republic visiting Dublin and counties Louth and Mayo from where his ancestors emigrated to America.
This close engagement of the US administration in Irish affairs was not always the case. For a long period, British governments tried to keep official and unofficial American involvement to a minimum. In 1994, the British embassy in Washington fought long and hard, though ultimately unsuccessfully, to dissuade the Clinton administration from issuing a visa to the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, to visit America.
President Bill Clinton and Adams, who will both be in Belfast on Wednesday to celebrate 25 years of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA), went on to play a vital role in producing the historic deal. Furthermore, Clinton was active in making sure that the agreement was implemented.
Prior to that period – and intermittently since when Boris Johnson and Liz Truss were UK prime minister – there was a British tendency to underestimate the interest of US politicians in developments in Northern Ireland. Sometimes this was dismissed too lightly as the result of many US politicians, particularly in the Democratic Party, being of Irish-American origin or of pandering to the Irish-American vote, in so far as this still exists.
Ethnicity and religious origin have an influence, but another reason why US presidents like being involved in Northern Irish problems is simply that they have some chance of resolving them. For all the complexities and difficulties, successes can be achieved in a world where they are scarce or unobtainable. Biden knows, as did Clinton before him, that nudging all parties towards a deal may work, as it did with the GFA in 1998 and the Windsor Framework in 2023.
Paradoxically, the Brexiteers, who knew and cared little about the GFA, had made Britain more dependent on Washington by leaving the EU – and hence Britain was more vulnerable to American pressure against Johnson and Truss gutting the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Biden is likely to keep a certain distance away from the confrontation halting power sharing in Northern Ireland as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) continues to veto the resurrection of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive. As always, the DUP trumpets its intransigence but it does not have a feasible alternative policy of its own. It is unlikely to extract significant concessions from London, though it might get some money in the shape of further subsidies for Northern Ireland.
Any change in the DUP hard line stance will have to wait until after the local elections on 18 May. So far, its rejection of the Windsor Framework is paying off among unionist voters. The latest opinion poll by the Irish News and the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University shows the DUP has increased its share of the vote by 2.3 per cent to 23.9 per cent since the Assembly election in May 2022 when it lost significant support to the Traditional Unionist Voice, which is even more intransigent than the DUP.
The same poll shows Sinn Fein to have slightly increased its share of first preference votes to 30.6 per cent, retaining its position as the largest political party in Northern Ireland, enabling it to nominate a First Minister – though not until a DUP deputy chief minister comes on board. With the moderate Alliance party also making a small gain in the polls to 15.4 per cent, it is worth recalling that there has always been a majority in the Assembly for the Protocol even before it was modified by the Windsor Framework. A majority of voters in Northern Ireland opposed Brexit in the referendum in 2016.
The DUP faces another paradox in vetoing the restoration of Stormont as the seat of government for the province. The DUP’s aim in doing so is to strengthen Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain. Yet by refusing to take part in government, the DUP is itself destabilising the Northern Ireland state and putting in doubt the future of the GFA. Many DUP voters are glad to do just that, but they fail to realise that the alternative to the GFA-designed government may not be closer links to Britain but to the Republic of Ireland, which is precisely the outcome that the DUP wants to avoid.
Already the DUP has seen how its support for Brexit, mistakenly believing that this would lead to a harder land border between north and south in Ireland, produced a new trade border in the Irish Sea. Few people are more impervious to learning from past mistakes than DUP leaders, but it is time they got round to it.