DUP should ask ‘why they are no longer the first party’, says Westminster NI affairs chair

The Democratic Unionist Party has choices to make - and it must face them soon, says Robert Buckland, chair of the Northern Ireland committee at the House of Commons

Sitting in his office in Portcullis House across the road from the Palace of Westminster in London, Robert Buckland quickly emphasises that he is not an Englishman.

Born in Llanelli, Buckland says: “I’m British, but I’m not English. I’m a very proud Welshman. I’ve always been acutely aware of the wider dimensions of life on these islands.”

“And what it means, actually, to be British, to be Welsh, is to have a number of identities, and to celebrate all of them. And I am, and I do.”

The point is made to explain why Buckland, twice a member of the British Cabinet, chose to become chair the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.


The committee examines the administration, spending and policy of the Northern Ireland Office.

“I regard the affairs of Ireland as much my business as anybody else’s. I really do. It would seem unnatural not to be interested in what’s happening across the Irish Sea,” he says.

Following the ending of his time as Welsh Secretary in October 2022, Buckland – a Conservative MP for South Swindon since 2010 – joined the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, becoming involved in its Belfast Agreement review.

Published last November, by which time he was chair, the report argued that changes brought by the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006 have contributed to NI’s sclerotic politics.

“The safeguards have also contributed to institutions which are unstable and prone to collapse, with a single party effectively given a veto in circumstances such as the election of the Speaker of the Assembly and the formation of an Executive,” it read.

In a bid to break the impasse where either Sinn Féin or the Democratic Unionist Party can collapse the institutions, it argued that the Stormont Speaker should be elected by a two-thirds Assembly supermajority.

Such a rule would not restore the Executive, he emphasises, but “at least” politicians could “raise issues, ask questions, call people to account and do the job they were elected to do”.

The same two-thirds rule, though, should apply to the post of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but the job titles should change to “Joint First Minister” to drive home the message that the jobs are, and always have been, of equal rank.

The latter proposal was seen by some in Sinn Féin as undermining the First Minister’s post, one that should be held by Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill if and when the DUP signs up to a deal to restore the institutions.

Buckland rejects that argument, strongly. “This wasn’t an attempt to try and undermine Sinn Féin. This was an attempt to try and accept the fact that the office is a joint office,” he says.

“Why are we worrying about titles? Why don’t we just accept the fact it’s a partnership and treat it as such. Whether it’s DUP or Sinn Féin should matter little.”

Equally, Buckland, a self-avowed unionist and one with close personal connections with unionist MPs, has strong words for the DUP.

The loathing held by many in the DUP for the idea of Sinn Féin’s O’Neill as First Minister is “I’m afraid one that should belong to history.

“We have to accept the electoral arithmetic. These are the facts, and you can’t wish them away. If you want to change things, win elections, get more people to vote for your party,” says Buckland.

“Instead of that, the DUP should ask themselves the fundamental question of why it is that they are no longer the first party. That’s the more relevant question.”

Northern Ireland’s middle-ground is growing, fuelled, perhaps, by the decline in religious beliefs, though Buckland never saw belief, as such, as the cause of the Troubles.

“It was something to belong to, it was a brand. They would have blinked at you if you had had doctrinal arguments with them about transubstantiation.”

Today, however, families and communities in Northern Ireland are “looking forward; they’re not looking back”, he says, adding that it is “incumbent” on politicians to help them do so.

For that to happen, proper government is needed: “There’ll still be problems, but at least they can be looked at by home-grown politicians.”

So far, that still seems far away, with the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr insisting on Wednesday that the Stormont stalemate will not be settled before major strikes next week.

However, Buckland argues that neither Northern Ireland, nor the DUP has the luxury for such delays: “To govern is to choose.

“We have to accept the world as it is, not necessarily as we would like it to be. The electoral maths has produced two things. Sinn Féin is the largest party.”

London, he says, has made a generous financial offer to restore the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, “worth £2.5 billion [€2.9 billion] and rising, a lot of good can be done with that”.

Describing the sum as “expansive”, Buckland goes on: “I think it’s incumbent on the two big parties of Northern Ireland to step up to the plate.”

The DUP should focus on what they can do with the money, rather than focusing on the EU-UK Brexit deal that no one in London, Brussels or Dublin wants to reopen.

“They need to worry about what they can control and focus on what the Assembly and the Executive should be doing. And it’s not the reworking of treaties,” he says.

“Instead, it’s the things that matter to their electors, whether health services and schools are operating, whether public transport is in a good state.”

However, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and others insist that the priority is Northern Ireland’s place in the union, not technocratic compromises to avoid an Irish hard border.

“Nobody’s saying, least of all me as an avowed unionist, that their place in the union has changed,” says Buckland, who campaigned in 2016 for the UK to stay in the European Union.

“Brexit brought complications. It always was going to do so. The idea that the Irish border would be an exception to the hard edges of the EU single market was always an idle one.

“Inevitably, the EU wanted the single market policed,” he said, adding that he had been worried from the off about the consequences of a UK exit from the EU.

The UK/EU Windsor agreement, last year’s deal aimed at allaying unionist concerns over the previous Brexit divorce agreement for Northern Ireland, has gone, however, “a huge way” to mitigating the negative consequences of that December 2020 trade deal.

“We should allow that time to work. If it needs further refinement, we’ll come back to it. There will be an opportunity for a formal review to smooth off rough edges.”

Understanding Donaldson’s internal party difficulties, Buckland said, nevertheless, the DUP seems to “be party led by committee as opposed to individual initiative”.

“Ultimately, I cannot see how we can go about it a different way,” he said, bar contemplating some language in the UK’s Internal Markets Act to “clarify and safeguard” Northern Ireland’s place.

However, Buckland goes on to warn clearly that the paralysis in Northern Ireland’s politics, seen by many as ever-more demands for changes by the DUP, is being welcomed less and less in Westminster.

Unionists, he says, must be conscious of changing opinions in Great Britain: The danger always for Northern Ireland is not hostility [in Britain], but ignorance and indifference.

“That’s not so much a West Tyrone question, but a West Swindon question. Why do we bother? We’re funding it to the tune of £17/18 billion a year and all we get is grief,” he says.

Buckland does not agree with such views, believing that the ties that bind England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are “familial” and worth preserving, but those views are there.

“The danger is the more insular NI politics becomes, the less relevant it is seen not just in Westminster, but by the public,” he says.

“That would be a very sad day for all of us.”

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