Brendan Hughes: The DUP’s approach to its beloved Union is a web of contradictions – Brendan Hughes


As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson spoke in the Commons against the Brexit protocol, the exasperated looks of the two SDLP MPs directly behind him summed up the feelings of many.

The DUP leader said his party “warned of the consequences”. The same DUP who championed leaving the European Union and, when holding the balance of power in Westminster, sided with the Tories for ever tougher forms of Brexit.

He warned of the economic impact of the Irish Sea trade deal, just weeks after fumbling in an election debate over statistics which later showed total average prices for products from groceries were lower in Northern Ireland than in Britain.

Read more:Analysis: Boris Johnson travels to Northern Ireland to navigate Brexit mess of his own making

There was a lecture on the principles of cross-community consent under the Good Friday deal – from the man who left the UUP in opposition to the Belfast deal.

“Under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, power sharing can only be stable if there is consensus on a cross-community basis. There is not at the moment from the unionist community” , Sir Jeffrey told MPs.

His colleague Carla Lockhart doubled down on the rhetoric by trying to evoke the late John Hume, an architect of the 1998 peace accord.

She asked what the former SDLP leader would think of her party’s ‘divisive and majoritarian approach’ to the Protocol, prompting a reprimand from SDLP MP Claire Hanna, who replied: ‘Remove the name of John Hume out of your mouth”.

Taking matters to new levels of farce, DUP MP Sammy Wilson called on Ms Hanna to apologize – ignoring how his own party colleagues repeatedly spoke about the South Belfast MP during her contribution to the debate.

There was little mention of “cross-community consent” when a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, or when the DUP supported the Conservative government in Brexit negotiations.

When the DUP calls on others to respect Stormont’s power-sharing, it really means maintaining the ability of the larger Unionist and Nationalist parties to block change.

It is a veto that the DUP, as the largest unionist party, has exercised for many years.

He blocked support for same-sex marriage. He blocked the commissioning of abortion services for women. He blocked Irish language legislation. He blocked Covid restrictions at a time when the number of cases was increasing.

It is not about sharing power on the basis of respecting and protecting facets of two post-conflict communities. This demonstrates that the system is in dire need of reform.

It ignores the changing dynamic in Stormont after an Assembly election that returned more non-aligned MPs on the constitutional issue than ever before.

The DUP’s approach to its beloved Union is a web of contradictions. This is evidenced once again by his latest block by vetoing Stormont’s restoration of Protocol.

The party cannot accept Northern Ireland diverging from Britain on trade after Brexit, but is content to keep the region as a place apart in many other ways.

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“The Irish Sea border must go,” the party says, but they would be happy to maintain a sea border on same-sex marriage, language rights and access to abortion.

Like an echo of DUP founder Ian Paisley’s infamous “never, never, never” throughout the ages, the party approaches every decision with adamant attitude.

Each time, it results in a stalemate, a fudge, and a descent. And each time there is a little more electoral disillusionment, gradually making the Unionist bloc of Stormont smaller and smaller a withdrawal.

It will be the same with the Protocol. It’s just a matter of when.

There is a compromise point somewhere between the UK and EU proposals on trade deal changes.

Even if the British government acts unilaterally as it threatened to do this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made it clear that the protocol is not abandoned.

Sir Jeffrey said the DUP opposed the ‘current protocol’ but his colleague Ian Paisley told MPs that if UK ministers ‘keep the protocol power sharing will not return’.

Whether a decision on trade issues takes weeks or months, the question remains whether the DUP can maneuver itself to accept the outcome – or whether it will continue to say “no”.

Read more:Brendan Hughes: Emma Little-Pengelly’s return shows DUP preparing for election battles ahead

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