Why was there a political deadlock in Northern Ireland? | Explained

Why was there a political deadlock in Northern Ireland? | Explained

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill.
| Photo Credit: REUTERS

The story so far: Northern Ireland (NI) has finally developed a new government this month after a hiatus between the two main parties since the 2022 elections to the Stormont Assembly. The pro-Irish unity Sinn Fein party garnered the largest number of seats. This is the first time since the creation of NI that Stormont has its first nationalist Prime Minister in Michelle O’Neill. Emma Little-Pengelly of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), staunchly committed to remaining in the U.K., is the deputy first minister.

Why did it take so long to form a government?

The DUP, a constituent of the Conservative-led government, was a signatory to Britain’s 2020 withdrawal agreement from the European Union (EU). The party has nevertheless not reconciled itself to the internal trade border created between NI and the rest of Britain, and has hence boycotted Stormont institutions since the 2022 regional elections. The border in the Irish sea was necessitated by the Conservatives’ insistence that the decision to leave in the 2016 referendum meant nothing short of a clean break with the EU. Following tortuous negotiations, the U.K. recognised that letting NI stay in the EU customs union was the only option to ensure that the north and south of Ireland remained border-free so as to protect the integrity of the 1998 Good Friday agreement and the EU single market. Thus, NI functions under the dual jurisdiction of the U.K. and the EU. That is to say, the region is uniquely both a territory within the UK, as well as governed by EU customs regulations and the single market in trade relations with Britain. The rest of the U.K. remains entirely outside the EU.

What is the new deal in Belfast?

The 2023 Windsor framework addressed NI’s concerns over the U.K.’s withdrawal protocol and simplified the paperwork required to send goods to Great Britain from NI. The framework allowed a green lane to U.K. firms that joined the so-called Britain Trusted trader scheme to send goods to NI. Conversely, U.K. goods destined to Ireland and other EU countries were cleared via a red lane after a more stringent scrutiny of documentation.

A proposal announced in January, called the Command Paper, eases procedures even further. It replaces the “green lane,” by simply exempting 80% of goods transported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from checks, besides setting up a body to preserve the latter’s status in the U.K.’s internal market. Still, the latest arrangement does not detract from the fact that companies from Great Britain sending goods to NI will continue to process more paperwork, relative to firms that trade between destinations within Great Britain. This is the price of NI’s dual jurisdiction.

How will Sinn Fein and DUP cohabit?

Sinn Fein is counting on a clear victory in the upcoming Irish elections and thus occupying office on either side of the divide as a boost to future reunification. Ms. O’Neill, did hint at a referendum on Irish unification taking place a decade down the line. She was however careful to emphasise that her government would work for the prosperity of the whole region. Now that it has rejoined the government, the DUP must deliver for the people as a whole, given that the NI’s economy has outperformed that of Britain post-Brexit. The party may feel comforted by surveys that point to NI majority’s preference for the constitutional status quo, even though the Catholics outnumber the Protestants as per the 2021 Census. At the same time, the DUP cannot overlook that 56% of people in NI rejected Brexit in 2016.

What are the challenges ahead?

The pressures exerted by Brexit will invariably persist until an unlikely reversal of the historic decision. But their resolution will not be helped by persistent political deadlock that has undermined the justifiable requirement for compulsory coalitions between the unionists and nationalists. The Irish Prime Minister has recently called for reform of the system he regards as no longer fit for the purpose. It may be time for a relook at the present arrangement.

The writer is Director, Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Technologies.

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