Political soothsaying is a notoriously inaccurate pursuit, yet the temptation to engage in a spot of festive prediction-making is just too enticing, I’m afraid. Here, then, in a spirit of wild-eyed optimism, and reckless fortune-telling I offer the following…
So, 2023 is the unwanted year, sitting, as it does, just outside of the commemorations from Ireland’s ‘Decade of Centenaries.’ Still, there are other anniversaries knocking about. Sixty years ago, Terence O’Neill became prime minister of Northern Ireland. We are half a century on from the Sunningdale Agreement. And three decades since the Downing Street Declaration.
Mere footnotes, of course, alongside the big birthday. In April, it will be 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. President Biden is slated to fly in for the commemorations, assuming his instructions to Rishi Sunak about sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol row are heeded. Which they will have been.
At the time, the agreement famously required ‘creative ambiguity’ to get it across the line and a similar ‘distract and fudge’ approach might be necessary once more to resolve the protocol impasse, convincing the DUP to come in from the window-ledge and stop boycotting the assembly and executive.
They will succeed in getting it amended – to the EU’s satisfaction – but it will not be ‘scrapped.’ Is the beleaguered Chris Heaton-Harris, the third Secretary of State for Northern Ireland coughed forward over the past year, the man to talk them in?
It has been a bumpy start for him but has not been devalued to junk stock like his immediate predecessor, Shailesh Vara, the stop-gap secretary of state who was despatched earlier this year while Boris Johnson worked out his notice. When previously posted to the NIO as a junior minister, Vara is said to have enquired of an official whether he would need his passport to visit Derry. (A great anecdote but, in fairness, one he flatly denies).
Talk of a return for Julian Smith, the only holder of that post respected by all sides in recent times, is wide of the mark. Probably.
Despite boxing itself in at the behest of the Two James’ – Bryson and Alistair – the DUP simply has nowhere else to turn. They can either be a party of government or one of perpetual protest. They have been both over the years and certainly prefer the perks that come with the former. The protocol row has not altered that calculation.
A dose of realpolitik courtesy of Rishi Sunak’s need to placate audiences in both the EU and US, as well as the usual inducements offered to get things moving again, will see them acquiesce and re-enter the executive. As they always do, albeit in a junior capacity this time to Sinn Fein. Helpfully, we will therefore avoid another assembly election, while MLAs will be mightily relieved to have their docked wages restored.
There will, however, be a price paid for leaving the protocol ultras on the beach. Especially as the Supreme Court challenge to have it ruled unconstitutional will fail, having previously foundered in the High Court. The DUP will need to make a decisive break with the all-or-nothing keyboard warriors who oppose the protocol in principle rather than just in practice.
In which respect, the outcome will be Bryson-subjugating, the price purists like Jamie pay for dabbling in the compromised world of practical politics, where all fixed positions come with castors attached and all disagreements eventually end in a deal.
Still, the campaigning elan he has undoubtedly shown would fit nicely inside the TUV. Crotchety Jim Alister has taken things as far as he can. Could Jamie be his replacement going into the next assembly elections?
If Unionist right-wingers wants a reckoning with the DUP for folding on the protocol, the obvious casualty might well be Jeffrey Donaldson. I suspect this year will see him relinquish the leadership of the DUP. If he had really wanted the role, then he could have made a bid years ago. He just stepped-up because he didn’t want the dinosaur-deniers to be in charge. (We should thank him for that at least).
Neither does he aspire to be First Minister, having resigned the seat he won in May’s assembly election 48-hours later, letting one of his colleagues backfill him under Northern Ireland’s odd no by-elections system. Might Lord Donaldson of Strangford have a ring to it? More impressive that plain old ‘Sir Jeffrey’ when he is leading those trade missions to Cameroon and Egypt.
We will, however, see elections of another kind in May – those for Northern Ireland’s 462 council seats. The DUP currently leads Sinn Fein by just 114-104. Having lost top spot to the Shinners in May’s assembly election and with a minority of Unionists now representing Northern Ireland in Westminster, could the locals become the DUP’s – and Unionism’s – third major electoral setback?
Pressure will also be on both Doug Beattie and Colm Eastwood to improve on their parties’ run of poor performances in recent years. The leaders of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP are each caught in a pincer between Sinn Fein and the DUP squeezing them from their respective tribes and Alliance pressurising them from the centre.
It is not obvious what either man does to improve their lot. There’s clearly little love lost between Beattie and the DUP (much to his credit), evidence by the row in the assembly a few weeks back, where he chided Edwin Poots for ‘whining like a girl.’
A career soldier, you might expect him to be one of those starchy straight backs that his party used to throw up, however Beattie is more affable, and has a searing honesty when he talks about his difficult early life. But he could do with better political advisers. The cache of his old tweets that came to light straight before May’s assembly election was an entirely avoidable disaster. Did no-one in UUP HQ bother to check their new leader’s social media posts?
Making derogatory, barrack-room references to women and Travellers did not exactly paint him in a positive light, and scotched talk of a ‘Beattie bounce,’ as the Ulster Unionists limped home in the assembly election with a seat fewer than they started the campaign. Still, his contrition seemed genuine enough and for many centrist unionists he still contrasts well against the ‘Book of Mormon’ types that populate the DUP’s benches.
To get back in the game, Eastwood has tried defining himself against the Shinners, but all that seems to do is to drive away transfer votes from republicans. Might he try greening-up as a means of cutting-in to Sinn Fein’s support?
He makes a good fist of the social democratic part of his party’s offer, excoriating the DUP over its failure to re-establish the executive so it could ‘put money in people’s pockets’ (a line that Sinn Fein then nicked). By naming alleged Bloody Sunday killer, Soldier F, on the floor of the House of Commons back in July, he showed that he does not mind using his position (and parliamentary privilege) to mix things up a bit.
Still, could the SDLP lose ground to the more economically radical People Before Profit in such straitened times, or even see the republican pro-life party, Aontú, cost them seats? Peadar Tóibín’s party is much clearer and bolder about its brand and potential appeal than Eastwood’s SDLP is nowadays. If Nationalist voters want an old-style Catholic lefty republican option, then Aontú was designed with them in mind.
They are currently blaming both Sinn Fein and the SDLP for backing legislation imposing restriction zones outside abortion clinics. ‘In a state that battered and shot dead Civil Rights marchers 50 years ago are we now going to start imprisoning human rights activists?’ Ouch.
It has been quite the year for Naomi Long and Alliance, the de jour flag of convenience for the constitutionally agnostic, winning nine extra seats in the assembly and climbing to third place overall. But as they continue to grow, is it plausible to ignore the self-evident reality that the discussion about Northern Ireland’s very future has now become mainstream? Surely its disingenuous to continue this charade much longer?
Further south, and the festive amity is in short supply. Michael Martin’s replacement by Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach under their 2020 coalition agreement is something of a last hurrah in Dublin’s stiflingly chummy political-media class.
His task is to punch a hole in Sinn Fein’s relentless advance. The cognoscenti wants things to go back to the way they were, with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael taking it in turns to fill up the trough for them and their friends, while they consign talk of Irish unity for a Last Orders sing-song.
The problem for FFFG (seriously, is there little point delineating them?) is that Mary Lou McDonald is the Heineken republican; reaching parts of the electorate they cannot, just as surely as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness could not.
‘Maradkarism’ was always solely about self-preservation, but if Leo is not able to move the dial back towards the old guard, could one of the southern papers start to move the other way towards Sinn Fein ahead of the next election? Investors and business leaders are already putting feelers out, trying to gauge what a McDonald-led government would mean in practice.
Might the prospect also convince FF backbenchers to relieve themselves of Martin, the least green Taoiseach in Ireland’s history, ahead of the next election? Indeed, could Fine Gael finally come to their senses about ‘Nine Lives Leo’ and finally recognise Simon Coveney is simply the more talented of the two?
With a general election in Britain expected in autumn 2024, and an Irish one soon after, next year’s column will, I promise, be more portentous, but this feels like a reasonable assessment of the next 12 months to be going on with.