Six years on from a Brexit which it voted decisively against, Northern Ireland remains trapped in its consequences, let down by both the UK government and the strategic blunders of its largest party, the Democratic Unionists. While next week’s elections for the Stormont parliament could mark a significant new chapter, sadly the likelier outcome is more stasis.
While voters are mostly preoccupied with the cost of living and public services, the campaign is driven by two other issues: the demands for reform of the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs post-Brexit trade, and whether Sinn Féin, once the marginalised political wing of the IRA, might be the largest party in the Stormont parliament. Yet the most pressing question will be whether the DUP continues to boycott the power-sharing structures in protest over the protocol, a stance which prevents the creation of a fully-functioning government for the province.
Opinion polls predict a Sinn Féin win, though those closer to the contest are more cautious. (The focus on this may obscure the fact that both the biggest parties are likely to lose ground). Yet a Sinn Féin win is London’s “central planning assumption”. Victory would secure it the first minister post, the first time a party committed to Irish reunification will have claimed that role.
This is both momentous and largely symbolic. Polls show a clear majority for remaining part of the UK and Sinn Féin has not focused on the issue. Combined unionist parties should still outnumber nationalists and the first and deputy first ministers — divided between the largest party on each side — are actually joint heads. But if there is one place where symbolism matters it is Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin is leading in polls in Ireland too: the thought of it in power on both sides of the border alarms unionists. Showing it can lead a stable, pragmatic executive in the north would boost its standing in the Republic.
UK ministers have discussed renaming the jobs “joint first minister” but the DUP and Sinn Féin resist this, and other changes, to preserve the electoral benefit of campaigning to deny the other side the top job. And since the rules require the executive to be led by the two largest parties they also have the power to collapse it at will.
The DUP is threatening a boycott until the protocol is scrapped, a particularly dreadful stance for Northern Irish democracy if Sinn Féin were to win. Intransigence is almost its last electoral gambit after a litany of political errors which included supporting Brexit (while opposing every model of how it might work) and siding with Boris Johnson only to see him do a deal which sacrificed the union’s integrity for the purity of Brexit on the mainland.
The deal placed Northern Ireland within the EU single market for goods, creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea. This has led to often onerous customs checks on British goods. Some mainland retailers have decided it is no longer worth the trouble selling to the province. The problems were foreseen when the UK signed the protocol, but the EU’s implementation has been inflexible, focused on theoretical rather than real threats to the single market. All parties in Northern Ireland agree the protocol needs reform, not least because it is still not fully in force.
Conservatives are now planning legislation to give the UK the right to unilaterally over-rule protocol provisions. This plays to Johnson’s instinct for shock tactics to reboot negotiations with Brussels, though it is a gamble that the EU will not retaliate.
Yet this gives the DUP an incentive to promote instability to pressure the EU — at times hardliners have come too close to condoning violence. UK ministers also know the protocol offers economic advantages and that a majority at Stormont favour fixing rather than trashing it. While they cannot ignore unionist anger, Tories need to find an achievable landing zone which eases GB/NI trade friction. Until the expectations of the maximalist anti-protocol forces are managed towards compromise, it will remain the faultline in Northern Irish politics.
This leads on to a broader point. The intricate Stormont structures, once essential for peace, are now loading the system against moderates and limiting space for compromise. The power to collapse the executive is being abused. Both UK and Irish ministers have discussed allowing another unionist or nationalist party to take the place of the two bigger parties if they refuse to participate. The rules also preclude non-aligned parties from taking the top jobs, though they do get other ministerial roles.
This all coincides with an upsurge in support for the cross-community Alliance party and a modest, though stalling, revival for the more pragmatic Ulster Unionist party. Tories know that a modern, less sectarian Northern Ireland is the best way to safeguard the Union, but the structures work against it. If both Sinn Féin and the DUP do lose vote share, the need to address a system unduly weighted in their favour becomes more pressing.
Both London and Dublin can see the case for reform but are understandably nervous of tampering with power-sharing rules. One Brit observes: “Is there an appetite for change? Emotionally, yes, but politically, absolutely not.”
The protocol battles will dominate for now. But reforms are necessary if Northern Ireland is to chart a path beyond backward-looking rules which frustrate a tantalising but still too distant future.