The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party, while the DUP came second on their anti-Protocol platform. However, there is no majority for either Irish unification nor for scrapping the Northern Irish Protocol.
Following confirmation of their position as the largest party after the Northern Irish elections last week, Sinn Fein have declared an end to the ‘built in unionist majority’ at Stormont. This is significant, but are they right? A long time coming, Sinn Fein’s ability to make this statement reflects changes in society and demographics. But it also speaks to more recent politics, especially around Brexit and the Northen Irish Protocol element of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement.
A nationalist win but a remaining unionist majority
Yes, Sinn Fein gained votes, and a historic victory as the largest party, but the DUP lost more. Remainer Unionists, or those more relaxed about the Protocol, went to the Alliance Party; and despite DUP efforts, harder line anti-Protocol voters went to Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a unionist and loyalist party that split from the DUP in 2007.
The DUP made this election about the Protocol – and say they won’t go back into the Executive until it’s ’dealt with’ (read scrapped). But they also played on the prospect of Sinn Fein emerging as largest party and claiming First Minister. This sectarian undercurrent seems to have rallied nationalist support to Sinn Fein, at the expense of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), rather than consolidating DUP’s support.
This all said, more votes overall were (still) cast for unionist than nationalist parties. If and when the Assembly meets the members will probably declare: 37 unionist, 35 nationalist, 18 other. The rise of the Alliance, the ‘other’ party – neutral on the question of reunification – is the other big shift. Which also raises questions about the essentially binary Belfast/Good Friday Agreement model.
International response and the Good Friday Agreement
The UK, Irish and US governments have all come out strongly, in apparently coordinated messages, urging the NI parties to stand-up the Executive, devolved government, and to support the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. But differences and suspicions remain: Dublin and Washington will be watching developments around the Queen’s speech closely. Although it seems that Downing Street have rowed-back from plans to explicitly take powers to override the Protocol, the ‘Brexit Opportunities Bill’ will still give them the vehicle to do so.
The EU has reiterated the importance of UK sticking to its international obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement. Detailed technical discussions on GB/NI customs arrangements continue, but neither side apparently expects an early breakthrough while the political uncertainty persists. The EU has been consistent in maintaining a patient stance over Northern Ireland, they are unlikely to (and indeed, institutionally conditioned not to) bend to pressure to offer a kneejerk reaction.
Deadlock at Stormont?
If, as seems likely, the DUP stick to their position and refuse to join the Executive, then only ‘current business’ can continue, meaning Stormont could not introduce legislation to, for instance, change policy in response to the cost of living crisis. If this stalemate continues for 24 weeks, then a new election follows within the following 12 weeks. So absent a breakthrough, that would mean new elections later in the year.
The UK will try to use the prospect of continued uncertainty and tension to get the EU to show new flexibility. But it’s not clear this will work, or indeed that the EU could meet the harder line DUP demands even if it were minded to give further ground. Some in the EU struggle to appreciate the sectarian politics and tensions triggered by the Protocol, and are unlikely to respond positively if blamed for the collapse of the Executive. Even those that do would point to the fact that these elections returned a majority that support the Protocol.
Predictable uncertainty for the foreseeable future
All in all, we are in for a period of renewed uncertainty, tension, potentially protest, and government stasis in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein will seek to exploit the situation, if blocked from taking up the First Ministership, including to campaign for a border poll (they‘re already calling for one within five years), to build support in Ireland, with a view to the elections there, and with sympathetic, especially Democrat, voices in US.
It is though, important to disaggregate the question of the Protocol and Irish unification, while understanding the interplay between them: Northern Irish politics has been skewed by the debate around the post-Brexit settlement; although we can expect the stalemate on this issue to continue for months, possibly years, it is reasonable to expect that it will be resolved in that timeframe, likely with some sort of formalisation of the current partial implementation contingent on some form of guarantees from the UK side. One way or another, it is hard to see any solution that does not see NI retain a unique status of being part of both the UK and the EU’s internal market.
The question of Irish unification exists on a longer-term timetable – five years in even Sinn Fein’s most optimistic predictions. By then, societal and demographic trends mean that economic considerations are likely to be at least as important as traditional sectarian and constitutional ones. Unionists may find that the Protocol, in whichever form it ends up in, weighs heavily in that economic equation if and when the time comes.
Sir Julian King, Flint Specialist Partner was the UK’s EU Commissioner 2016-19, responsible for EU policy on security, cyber and important aspects of tech and data. He was previously UK Ambassador to Paris and Dublin, headed the Northern Ireland Office, and has 30 years of experience working on international and multilateral issues in the UK, the US and Brussels.
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