Working towards Irish Unity




Stormont: Ireland’s longest-running pantomime

We are delighted to have Roy Greenslade contribute to . Roy is one of the finest journalists, writers and media commentators of his generation. Below he reflects on the politics of the DUP and British government as farce.

There is no end to the pantomime season in the Six Counties. It is, however, anything but funny. The plot is dire and repetitive; the characters are one-dimensional; and there is a notable absence of enthusiastic audience participation.

Act One began in February 2022 when the DUP’s First Minister, Paul Girvan (no, I can’t remember him, either), resigned and took his party out of the Stormont Assembly. His reason: his party’s opposition to the Protocol, the cross-border trade agreement necessitated by Brexit. 

Feel free at this point to laugh by recalling that the party which advocated Brexit, thereby exacerbating the trading problems caused by withdrawal from the European Union, was the DUP.

Act Two: in the May 2022 Assembly election, Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party, displacing the DUP from its long-held prime position. It meant that Michelle O’Neill would become First Minister. Well, she would have done but for the DUP’s refusal to agree to the election of a Speaker in continuance of its opposition to the Protocol. 

And, dare I suggest it, the DUP also wanted to avoid the embarrassment of playing understudy to Sinn Féin. Is that hissing we can hear from SF’s 250,388 voters? 

Act Three: In March 2023, Westminster, having agreed to amend the Protocol, negotiated a further amendment with the EU, known as the Windsor Framework. After being passed by Westminster, the Tory government said it was non-negotiable. 

But the DUP, the party of No, was unable to grasp the finality of the government’s position. Blithely ignoring that the framework was a done deal, the party said it merely marked “significant progress”. The DUP wanted the world to believe it was engaged in some kind of ongoing negotiation. 

So, the curtain rose on Act Four, which marks the moment of transformation from pantomime to farce. It has been running ever since.

The starring (sic) role has been played by the DUP’s leader, Sir Jeffery Donaldson. But every comic act needs a straight man, so allow me to introduce the Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris. Together, in recent months, they have performed in scenes of increasingly hilarious pretence.

Scene One: 25 June. Donaldson writes a foreword in a report issued by the pro-Brexit think tank, the Centre for Brexit Policy, stating that his party has several issues of concern about the framework.

Scene Two: 20 July. Heaton-Harris says he is optimistic that the power-sharing institutions will return this autumn.

Scene Three: 27 July. Donaldson announces that he expects a “definitive response” from the government on the DUP’s “issues of concern”. To further his arguments, Donaldson produces “position papers” which he trades with Heaton-Harris ahead of off-stage meetings between them in London and Belfast. Both men are acting as if something is happening, or will happen. 

Scene Four: 4 August. Heaton-Harris says he has “every confidence” in Donaldson’s ability to lead the DUP back into Stormont. 

Scene Five: 13 September. Donaldson says progress is being made to resolve outstanding problems with the framework.

Scene Six: 14 October. Donaldson, in a speech to the DUP conference, suggests he is “making progress” in talks with the government, although “there remains more work to do.”

Scene Seven: 16 October. Donaldson says he expects “more engagement with the government. They know where the gaps are and it’s up to both us and them to close those gaps.” 

Scene Eight: 19 October, on BBC’s Question Time. Donaldson says: “We are closer now to finding a resolution than we were at the beginning of this process.”

Sitting two seats away, Heaton-Harris speaks of the DUP having “just concerns” and, under pressure to explain why he hasn’t solved the impasse, he then makes an absurd, incomprehensible statement: “I think we are in the final phases of a wonderful group of talks.” 

Scene Nine: 25 October. Heaton-Harris tells the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the talks are “in the final phases and in a much more positive space than they have been in previously.”

Scene Ten: 1 November. Donaldson, speaking on Cool FM, says there are still “significant gaps” to be resolved and that “we’re not yet at the point where I can take back a comprehensive proposal to my party.”

Scene Eleven: 4 November. Stung by a claim that his talks with Heaton-Harris have run into the ground, Donaldson says: “No-one in government has said that to me… There are still gaps to be closed but we are working on these.”

Scene Twelve: 7 November. Following the King’s Speech to Parliament, which did not once mention Northern Ireland, Donaldson stretches credulity by reading it as a “commitment to the integrity of the Union”. He also says negotiations with government are continuing and he is hoping for a solution. 

Scene Thirteen: 8 November. Heaton-Harris, a master of gobbledegook, says speculation that his talks with the DUP have concluded is “completely not correct”.

If you are not already rolling in the aisles with laughter at this ludicrous dialogue, then consider another sick joke: no-one is allowed to know what they are talking about in their interminable talks. It’s a secret.

Heaton-Harris told the Commons committee he cannot disclose “the nature of the talks”. Why? Because, well, he just won’t. It means that the people eager to see the restoration of Stormont, and who are suffering from the DUP’s boycott, are prevented from knowing what the hell is happening. 

They are not alone. According to the BBC’s NI political correspondent, Gareth Gordon, aside from Donaldson and only four other DUP members, “no-one else seems to know the fine details of what has been offered or rather not offered.”

It is all a preposterous fraud. Despite protestations from both Donaldson and Heaton-Harris that they want to see Stormont back up and running, neither is really exercised if it never happens. These clandestine talks can go on indefinitely, and I fear this humourless farce will run and run.