Can Sinn Fein collapse Stormont again? DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson defends stability of New Decade, New Approach deal

Jeffrey Donaldson says the deal removes the 'incentive' of a snap election for anyone that collapses the Executive.
Jeffrey Donaldson says the deal removes the 'incentive' of a snap election for anyone that collapses the Executive.

The DUP has defended the latest political deal, but is not suggesting it could prevent Sinn Fein collapsing the assembly again - the unionist party’s main goal in last week’s talks.

Asked to comment on the ability of Sinn Fein to collapse Stormont again under the New Decade, New Approach deal, DUP negotiator Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would only say it removes what he claimed was the ‘incentive’ of forcing a ‘snap’ election through resigning.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned over the RHI scandal in 2017, prompting an assembly election three months later, but ultimately leaving NI without government for three years.

Mr Donaldson told the News Letter that NI suffered for three years because Sinn Fein sought to “exploit” the RHI issue for electoral gain. “By collapsing the Assembly in mid-January, they were able to have an Assembly election within a six weeks,” he said.

The latest deal, he said, ensures that if the Deputy First Minister resigns, the Executive and Assembly could continue for 36 weeks before an election. “This nine month delay removes the incentive for collapse to get electoral gain”.

“Devolution in Northern Ireland is only sustainable if it has the participation and support of both the unionist and nationalist community. However, it is now not possible for any party to exploit a situation again through forcing a snap Assembly election. The incentive instead is to resolve differences rather than create a political vacuum.”

The deal’s text says: “If a period of political tension arises in future which risks a breakdown of the institutions the agreement provides for a longer 24-week period before an Assembly election must be called. During this period ministers will remain in office in a care-taker capacity to allow for greater continuity of decision-making.”

But TUV leader Jim Allister said this “merely provides for a longer period for negotiations should a party decide to walk away” and that unionists “have no assurance that republicans cannot simply bring the Assembly down again”.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) did not dispute his claim. It said that under the new deal “there will be more time after a First or deputy First Minister resigns to appoint a replacement before an election is required and significantly more time after an election to form an Executive”. Ministers will be able to remain in post while an Executive is formed, and Assembly committees will also be able to scrutinise the work of the Executive, it added. It decline to offer any further clarification.

Drawing the opposite conclusion to the DUP, UUP leader Steve Aiken said the new deal would have had a much stronger disincentive to collapsing the assembly if any party doing so would have to face the electorate in a snap election. “This is a sustainability issue and we were particularly surprised with this aspect of the agreement,” he said. It appears to reward bad behaviour if one of the two larger parties resign - but could then keep their ministers in office for up to 48 weeks; This requires “substantive reform” to restore faith in democratic institutions, he added.