Are the DUP the new abstentionists of Northern Irish politics?

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s announcement this week that the DUP will not go back into government in Northern Ireland until the NI Protocol is removed will not come as a shock, but it will come as a hammer blow to many ordinary people who rely on the support from Stormont.

Throughout the Assembly elections Sir Jeffrey, and his colleagues in the DUP, made it crystal-clear that unless the British Government took decisive action on the protocol there would be dire consequences for the power-sharing arrangement. We are now at that point.

Under the current legislation the Executive has six months to reform, which takes us up to October. So, this current political instability could continue for a substantial period and should be a concern to everyone.

Especially if we consider all the potential decisions regarding departmental funding and budgets that need to be taken between now and October. Including tackling the current NHS waiting lists problem and cost of living crisis.

However, if I may highlight just one infrastructure project in our Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area where the lack of a decision-making Executive would have a potentially negative impact.

This project is the A1 Junctions Phase 2 Scheme, which is an important road safety improvement project. Local campaigners, and road users, have endured a long wait for progress after years of serious road traffic accidents and fatalities.

Then finally last January, the then Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, announced that the A1 scheme should progress. This followed a Public Inquiry into the scheme which ran from March 2020 to the issue of the Inspectors report in October 2020.

I attended a good proportion of the inquiry and was delighted with the outcome. This gave road safety campaigners a glimmer of hope that finally the scheme would go ahead. Little did they know that the troubles of Stormont would yet again stand in their way.

It is important to highlight that this strategic road, which connects Belfast and Dublin, normally carries around 40,000 vehicles per day and is a valuable economic and infrastructure asset. In addition to the new grade-separated junctions, the scheme aims to close-up all the gaps in the central reservation and provide a continuous central reserve safety barrier along the whole route from Hillsborough to Loughbrickland.

However, if there is no Executive in place how could the department funding for this project – estimated at between £65 – 75 million – be agreed?

So, this leads me to the next question: Does Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s latest announcement that his party will not nominate for the Deputy First Minister position and go back into government in Northern Ireland qualify the DUP to become Northern Ireland’s latest abstentionists?

Now my understanding of what defines an abstentionist position is that of a political party, or group of individuals, who stand for election to an assembly and then refuse to either take their seats or meaningfully participate in the assembly’s business.

The other well-known Northern Irish abstentionists is of course, Sinn Féin, whose boycott of the Westminister Parliament is well known and understood by voters but is still a contentious issue.

If Sinn Féin have a recognisably abstentionist position, then it is important to understand if other political parties, like the DUP, are just temporarily withdrawing from Executive office to achieve their short-term goal of the removal of the NI Protocol or whether this is a more permanent shift in direction. Particularly as the DUP has been at the very heart of the Northern Irish government for the majority of the previous two decades.

Finally, whether the British Government and the EU can agree a suitable remedy to the challenges posed by Brexit that would satisfy the DUP, and others, remains uncertain.

But what is certain is that we need all the local political parties to participate in our democracy to make power-sharing work.

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