The prospect of another election in Northern Ireland looms after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the second largest party in Northern Ireland behind the Republican party Sinn Fein, refused to appoint a Deputy First Minister. This means that Stormont (the seat of the Northern Irish assembly) remains closed and that there is no functional government in Northern Ireland.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has said that fresh elections must be called. However, no date has been called for the elections yet but they must occur within 12 weeks after the missed deadline to restore devolved government (midnight Thursday 27th October).
The DUP have refused to return to devolved government because of their concerns over the the Northern Ireland protocol, an agreement between the UK and EU allowing Northern Ireland to remain part of the Single Market post-Brexit so that a customs border does not have to be imposed in Ireland. The British government and the EU have been at a stalemate after the government threatened to break parts of the protocol, but negotiations have now started again. The DUP sees the protocol as undermining Northern Ireland’s status within the UK, as it means customs checks must occur at Northern Irish ports for goods coming from the rest of the UK. It argues that this results in a ‘sea border’ between it and the rest of the UK and as a consequence, they have refused to return to government until their grievances are addressed.
To briefly sum up the background, the roots of the Republican-Unionist divide in Northern Ireland goes back to the 16th century, when English and Scottish Protestants began to settle in Ulster. This process involved the displacement of the Irish natives, who were heavily Catholic and spoke Irish. To cut a long story short, Ireland eventually became part of the British Empire and Protestants were heavily favoured by the governments of the time, obviously leading to resentment on behalf of the Catholics who saw themselves as being displaced and discriminated against in their own lands.
Suffice to say, this deep division in Irish society led to the creation of Northern Ireland as a political entity when the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 was signed. The six predominately Protestant counties that made up Northern Ireland exercised the option to remain directly a part of the United Kingdom rather than be a member of the Irish Free State. Of course, Irish Republicanism did not just disappear in the North and decades of tension and conflict culminated in the period known as The Troubles, which began in the late 1960’s. This was a period of great turbulence. It saw the British Army deployed in the country and many atrocities, by both Unionists and Republicans as well at the British Army, were committed on civilians.
This period of bloodshed lead to the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998. The result of tireless work by community organisers, activists and politicians, it concerned all the political organisations in Northern Ireland, as well as between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The agreement also created the present political system in Northern Ireland, which is known as ‘power sharing’ or Consociationalism. Essentially, this means that Unionist and Republican parties are both participants in the Northern Irish government. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are allocated on electoral results with the largest party choosing the First Minister. If the largest party is a Republican party, such as Sinn Fein, then the largest Unionist party would pick the Deputy First Minister and vice versa. The cabinet of Northern Ireland is picked from a mixture of Unionist and Republican parties. Fundamentally, the system is intended to prevent one side from becoming too powerful and marginalising the other whilst ensuring that all communities feel represented.
Hopefully, this goes some way to explain why the DUP have the power to stall the creation of a new Irish government. The election that took place in Northern Ireland in May of this year saw the Republican Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland, with the DUP in second place. Alliance, a non-sectarian (meaning it is neither Republican or Unionist) liberal party became the third largest party.
This prolonged deadlock has caused some to question the system of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, including the Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) of Ireland Micheál Martin, who called the system no longer fit for purpose and needing review. As Stormont has not sat for four out of the last six years, leading Northern Ireland to be ran by civil servants rather than elected representatives, it is hard not to concede that he has a point. There is also a feeling that another election would be an expensive distraction and would not resolve the issues that are leading to the impasse.
A united Ireland is always an underlying factor in Northern Irish politics. Sinn Fein has experienced a meteoric rise and is now the largest party in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. The demographics of Northern Ireland have now begun to change, with more people identifying as Catholic than Protestant and more identifying as Irish rather than British according to the 2021 census, which are traditional markers of Irish nationalist sympathy. Brexit is also another factor in spurring sympathies towards a united Ireland, as Northern Ireland largely voted to remain. Whilst polling has not shown majority support for a united Ireland in the North yet (which is a condition of a referendum that would occur in both countries), it is steadily rising. Perhaps the refusal of the DUP to enter government is not entirely down to the Protocol, but rather anxiety over a Northern Ireland in flux and their position (and that of Unionism more widely) within it.