DUP's New Northern Ireland Deal Is A Major Political Moment. Here's Why

Could power-sharing at Stormont finally be restored after two years of delays and boycotts?
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson addresses the media after agreeing to a new deal to get Stormont up and running.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson addresses the media after agreeing to a new deal to get Stormont up and running.
Charles McQuillan via Getty Images

Northern Ireland’s devolved government is about to get up and running for the first time in almost two years.

Power-sharing at Stormont has been on hold over a Brexit-related row since 2022 – but that could be about to change after a deal was struck late last night.

Here’s what you need to know.

How does the Northern Ireland Assembly work?

To understand the importance of this deal, you need to know how the Assembly works.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the hard-won peace deal which drew the Troubles to a close, established the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It was part of the Westminster government’s plan for devolution, and meant some powers passed to the regional authority.

The Legislative Assembly is made up of 90 members (MLAs), with five elected from each of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies – much like the Westminster parliament.

The Executive - Northern Ireland’s devolved government - is a delicately balanced body made up of MLAs from the province’s unionist and nationalist communities.

Importantly, it cannot sit without participation from both sides.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Liam McBurney - PA Images via Getty Images

Why did it fall apart?

In a nutshell, the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), refused to take its seats in the devolved government because of the post-Brexit deal the UK struck with the EU in 2019.

To prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson agreed to put a trade border down the Irish Sea. That meant checks had to be implemented on goods travelling from Britain to NI.

The DUP saw this as a weakening of the Union and so boycotted the Assembly.

Rishi Sunak tried to resolve the impasse through last year’s Windsor Framework deal by introducing a “green lane” for goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.

But the DUP continued their boycott, even though, at this point, they were no longer the largest party in the Assembly.

Nationalist party Sinn Fein took more seats than the DUP for the first time ever in the May 2022 election, but power-sharing rules in Stormont prevented Sinn Fein from governing without the unionists.

What triggered the DUP’s change of heart?

After nearly two years – and a five-hour meeting on Monday night – the main Unionist party in Northern Ireland has finally agreed to return to a power-sharing devolved government.

The DUP’s leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson explained that the new legislation, agreed with Westminster, would “remove checks on goods moving within the UK and remaining in NI, and end NI blindly following EU laws”.

He added: “There will be legislation protecting the Acts of Union, which guarantees unfettered access for Northern Ireland business to the rest of the UK.”

He said these would be “legislative commitments” no matter who ends up in government after the next general election.

However, Sir Jeffrey added: “We will only be able to move after the government faithfully delivers on the implementation of its legal and other commitments.

“Both of our party officers and party executive have mandated me to move forward... on the basis of the proposals brought forward by the government, subject to and on the basis of the government delivering measures of the package.”

The change comes after public sector strikes in NI over pay, which has been frozen since the power-sharing agreement collapsed.

Late on Monday night, Sir Jeffrey said he had promised trade unions that pay awards to public sector workers would be prioritised when the institutions were restored.

The UK government has already promised an extra ÂŁ3 billion to help the public services in the region, and offered pay rises to thousands of workers whose pay has been frozen since the local government stalled.

It’s thought Westminster may offer a symbolic guarantee of NI’s role in the union, too, potentially including a rebrand the red and green custom lanes for goods going into the area.

While we are yet to see any further details of this plan, there are several potential stumbling blocks ahead.

What happens next?

It is likely to go through parliament in a few days, as the legal deadline for forming an executive is February 8.

The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, will then call for Stormont to come back so a speaker, first and deputy first minister are nominated.

Heaton-Harris said it was a “welcome and significant step” and said the UK government would “stick to this agreement” and aid the parties meeting this week to finalise the deal.

Westminster does have a tricky balancing act on its hands in the coming days though.

It has to try and reassure the DUP that they have introduced a change, while telling the EU they have not substantially changed the withdrawal deal.

So, is it all smooth sailing now?

Not quite.

Unionist protesters campaigned outside last night’s pivotal meeting, calling the DUP “sellouts” for agreeing to a deal, and expressing concern this increased the chances of a united Ireland.

The hardline Traditionalist Unionist Voice party said the DUP was guilty of a “betrayal of their own solemn pledges”.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson also claimed there were plenty of arguments among the DUP when the deal was being discussed at last night’s meeting.

However, Sir Jeffrey denied such allegations and said the reports did not reflect the reality.

Slamming the leaks, he said: “No one tonight in our meeting at any stage or in meetings of my party officers has ever used the word betrayal but it was used tonight to describe someone who was leaking information from a private meeting.

And even if not everyone in the DUP is happy with the deal, Sir Jeffrey said the vote was “decisive” and he had a mandate to proceed.

Still, Davy Thompson of the Unite union warned that there was not enough for striking unions to call off their industrial action on Thursday because there was not yet a clear timeline for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive.

He added: “Until there is government in Northern Ireland, there is no government in Northern Ireland.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald welcomed the deal, saying it is “vital there is political stability to address the scale of the crisis across our public services”.

A protester outside Larchfield Estate where the DUP are holding a private party meeting, they are calling for the DUP not to go back into Stormont until the Irish Sea Border is removed. Picture date: Monday January 29, 2024.
A protester outside Larchfield Estate where the DUP are holding a private party meeting, they are calling for the DUP not to go back into Stormont until the Irish Sea Border is removed. Picture date: Monday January 29, 2024.
Liam McBurney - PA Images via Getty Images
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