The prospect of a new election in Northern Ireland looms after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s second largest party behind the Republican party Sinn Fein, refused to appoint a Deputy First Minister. This means that Stormont (the seat of the Northern Ireland assembly) remains closed and there is no functioning government in Northern Ireland.
Chris Heaton-Harris, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said new elections must be called. However, no date has yet been set for the elections, but they must take place within 12 weeks after the missed deadline to restore the devolved government (midnight Thursday 27e October).
The DUP refused to return to devolved government over concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a deal between the UK and the EU allowing Northern Ireland to remain part of the single market after Brexit so that a customs border does not have to be imposed in Ireland. The UK government and the EU are at an impasse after the government threatened to break parts of the protocol, but talks have now resumed. The DUP sees the protocol as undermining Northern Ireland’s status within the UK, as it means customs checks must take place at Northern Irish ports for goods arriving from the rest of the Kingdom -United. He argues this results in a ‘maritime boundary’ between him and the rest of the UK and as a result they have refused to return to government until their grievances are addressed.
To briefly summarize the background, the roots of the Republican-Unionist divide in Northern Ireland go back to the 16e century, when English and Scottish Protestants began to settle in Ulster. This process involved the displacement of the Irish natives, who were strongly Catholic and spoke Irish. Long story short, Ireland eventually became part of the British Empire and Protestants were heavily favored by the governments of the day which obviously led to resentment from Catholics who saw themselves as out of place and discriminated against on their own land.
Needless to say, this deep division in Irish society led to the creation of Northern Ireland as a political entity when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921. The six predominantly Protestant counties that made up the Northern Ireland have exercised the option of directly remaining part of the United Kingdom rather than being a member of the Irish Free State. Of course, Irish republicanism didn’t just die out in the North and decades of tension and conflict culminated in the period known as the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s. It was a time of great turbulence. It saw the British Army deployed in the country and many atrocities, both by Unionists and Republicans as well as the British Army, were committed on civilians.
This period of bloodshed led to the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998. The result of tireless work by community organizers, activists and politicians, it involved all political organizations Northern Ireland, as well as between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The agreement also created the current political system in Northern Ireland, known as “power-sharing” or consociationalism. This essentially means that the Unionist and Republican parties both participate in the government of Northern Ireland. The prime minister and deputy prime minister are assigned based on election results, with the largest party choosing the prime minister. If the largest party is a Republican party, such as Sinn Fein, then the largest Unionist party will choose the Deputy Prime Minister and vice versa. The Northern Ireland cabinet is made up of a mix of Unionist and Republican parties. Basically, the system aims to prevent one side from becoming too powerful and marginalizing the other while ensuring that all communities feel represented.
Hopefully this partly explains why the DUP has the power to block the creation of a new Irish government. The election held in Northern Ireland in May this year saw Republican Sinn Fein become the largest party in Northern Ireland, with the DUP in second place. Alliance, a non-sectarian liberal party (i.e. it is neither republican nor unionist) became the third largest party.
This prolonged stalemate has caused some to question the power-sharing system in Northern Ireland, including the Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) of Ireland Micheál Martin, who has called the system more fit for purpose and in need of a revision. As Stormont has not sat for four of the last six years, leading to Northern Ireland being run by civil servants rather than elected representatives, it’s hard not to admit he’s right. There is also a sense that another election would be a costly distraction and would not resolve the issues leading to the stalemate.
A united Ireland is still an underlying factor in Northern Irish politics. Sinn Fein has had a meteoric rise and is now the largest party in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s demographics have now started 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 nationalist sympathy Irish. Brexit is also another factor boosting sympathies for a united Ireland, with Northern Ireland having voted overwhelmingly to stay. While polls have yet to show majority support for a united Ireland in the North (which is a condition of a referendum to be held in both countries), it is steadily rising. Perhaps the DUP’s refusal to enter government is not entirely down to protocol, but rather concern over a changing Northern Ireland and its position (and that of Unionism more broadly) in her bosom.