The Democratic Unionist party is under mounting pressure to accept the result of Northern Ireland’s assembly election even if, as polls suggest, Sinn Féin emerges as the biggest party.
In a televised party leaders’ debate on Tuesday night, Jeffrey Donaldson faced criticism over his threat to paralyse the formation of a new executive at Stormont after the election on Thursday.
Donaldson has said the prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party is “a problem” and that the DUP would not enter into a power-sharing government unless the Northern Ireland protocol is ditched.
Other party leaders and the BBC studio audience rounded on him in the debate, saying such a DUP boycott would stymie a new government and cripple efforts to tackle the cost of living and healthcare crises.
An opinion poll on Wednesday ratcheted up the pressure on Donaldson by showing the DUP tied with the Alliance party on 18%, behind Sinn Féin on 26%.
Controversy over the post-Brexit protocol, which puts a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, has convulsed the DUP and alienated unionists who accuse it of weakening the region’s position in the UK.
Donaldson has sought to claw back support by taking a hard line on the protocol and billing the DUP as a bulwark against Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party and nominating Michelle O’Neill as first minister, which would be a symbolic breakthrough for Irish nationalism. A deputy first minister post has equal power but less prestige.
Repeatedly asked in the debate whether the DUP would form an executive, Donaldson said he would turn up at Stormont but would not revive power sharing until the protocol had been dealt with. “Of course I am committed to leading the DUP into executive but we must deal with the protocol,” he said.
O’Neill said not having a government post-election would be “absolutely unfathomable” and accused the DUP of holding the region to ransom. “Whilst the rest of us want to put money in the people’s pockets and deal with the cost of living crisis, the DUP are telling people their identity is under threat,” O’Neill said.
Naomi Long of Alliance, Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionists and Colum Eastwood of the Social Democratic and Labour party also assailed Donaldson for prioritising the protocol over bread-and-butter issues.
Donaldson, quoting figures from a Kantar price tracker, said the cost of food in Northern Ireland was now 4% higher than in Great Britain, dairy 8% higher and chilled convenience foods 19% higher. “That’s the protocol. That’s why it needs to be sorted,” he said.
Manufacturing Northern Ireland said figures from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed regional inflation was consistently higher in Northern Ireland between January 2020, when Brexit was agreed, up to October 2021, when it fell behind the rest of the UK.
Donaldson’s assertion did not convince the studio audience: when asked if they agreed, just one person raised their hand.