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Northern Ireland: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

The elections to the Northern Irish Assembly—known as Stormont— on 5th May have entered international news following the Irish Republican Sinn Féin’s (LEFT) status as the largest party in the assembly that will soon be constituted. However beyond the headlines of this being portent towards a 32 County Republic—Irish unification—for the people of Northern Ireland this news is a sea change in politics. Nevertheless for the immediate future it will not impact the status of the home nation. At present, Northern Ireland is governed by a caretaker government involving four out of the five largest political parties, after the Loyalist DUP (NI) withdrew following concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol: the rules governing NI’s relationship with the economies of the UK and EU—and thus, the Republic of Ireland. This caretaker government was not allowed to make any major spending commitments that have not already been approved, and merely exists to ensure that the period of interregnum—when the DUP and Sinn Féin could not agree on a common platform of government—that occurred 2017–2020 is not repeated. But why was this? It is due to Northern Ireland’s unique system of government.

The Northern Irish Assembly’s political system is known as ‘power sharing’. A result of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the sectarian conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, lasting from the 1960s until 1997. It requires that the largest party of each community—the Nationalist, Catholic and Republican community on one side, and the Unionist, Protestant and Loyalist on the other—form a common government. It is designed to ensure that no government can form that inherently discriminates against the rights of either community However, it often causes political turmoil: ranging from failures of governments to form to political gridlock over spending, to some even arguing it merely promotes the continuation of sectarian politics, rather than helping heal the divides of the region.

The largest party in the Northern Irish parliament takes the role of First Minister—roughly corresponding to a Prime Minister of the region—and the second largest that of Deputy First Minister, while ministerial parties are allocated by D’Hondt method through an allocations process. The ministry of justice is appointed from a third party, often of ‘others’ community, to ensure fairness between the two camps. This role is often filled by the Alliance Party (APNI-RE), a non-sectarian social liberal party allied with the British Liberal Democrats (LDem-RE). Since the largest factions of each community have to agree on a common platform, cultural stumbling blocks can often cause heated negotiations or even a failure to form a government, as in 2001–2007 and 2017–2020. It is worth noting that most economic policy runs on an interventionist consensus in Northern Ireland, due to the heavy focus on cultural issues, the general poverty of the region, and the desires of communities to receive economic aid.

It is economic issues that have been at the heart of the most recent election, with two main issues cropping up. The first is the hardship caused by the rising cost of living—exacerbated by the pandemic, long-term UK-wide policy, and fuel price inflation caused by the Kremlin invasion of Ukraine. The second is the Northern Irish Protocol, the segment of the EU Withdrawal Treaty—part of Brexit process—which deals with how NI deals with its economic relations. For Sinn Féin, Alliance, People Before Profit (PBP-LEFT) and others the focus has been on the first issue, especially with the aforementioned caretaker government making critical decisions to continue spending and investment during the period of quasi-interregnum. For Eurosceptic Unionists—most notably the DUP and anti-Good Friday Agreement Traditionalist Unionist Voice (TUV-*)—the main concern has been reversing the protocol’s use to integrate NI with the Republic of Ireland’s economy and remove checks between NI and the rest of the UK, also known as the ‘Irish Sea Border’. As of present, Northern Ireland is able to freely trade with the rest of the Emerald Isle due to following EU regulations, which inherently means goods from the United Kingdom have to be inspected before entering the six counties of Northern Ireland. Pro-Europeans and Irish Nationalists argue this customs border between Northern Ireland and mainland UK is vital to prevent both economic collapse and sectarian violence, as customs posts were common targets of Republican Paramilitary attacks during The Troubles. Unionists argue that this internal border is an affront to their status as British citizens, harms trade within the country of the United Kingdom, and sets the stage for Unification with the Republic of Ireland without their consent.

The results of the recent election showed a mixed picture of what the future of the region should be. Sinn Féin won as the largest party, and as such in theory should take the role of First Minister in the history of the territory. The DUP lost many of its seats, with its vote share mostly because of the aforementioned TUV, who were founded as a splinter from the DUP in rejection for their formation of a government with Sinn Féin, as required by the rules of the Northern Irish Assembly. The TUV take both a hardline stance against working with the leading party, and openly support revising the Northern Ireland Protocol; aiming to end trade restrictions with mainland UK (and thus enact them with Republic of Ireland). In addition they reject the Peace Process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and what has come since it. While they gained a substantial share of the vote from previous elections, up some five percentage points, they only netted one extra seat due to transfers under Northern Ireland’s electoral system of Single Transferable Vote.

The main beneficiary of the DUP’s collapse in vote share was the Alliance party, who more than doubled their representation in Stormont from eight seats to 17. The centre-right Unionist UUP (ECR), and moderate nationalist SDLP (S&D) both lost seats and achieved record low vote shares. For the UUP this was uniquely bad, for they were the party which saw the foundation of Northern Ireland as an entity to begin with in 1921. The Trotskyite PBP kept their single seat, although were close to picking up a second in the seat of Foyle, in which Northern Ireland’s second city Derry-Londonderry is situated. The Northern Ireland Green Party (GPNI-G/EFA), which is affiliated to its sister in the Republic of Ireland, lost both of their only seats.

The historic highs for SF and APNI show a development in Northern Irish politics in which the first mentioned party—once the political wing of the outlawed terrorist organisation the ‘Provisional Irish Republican Army’—has gained a degree of legitimacy where a plurality of those living in the six counties of Northern Ireland believe the party should govern. APNI’s rise to a position of prominence indicates a desire for non-sectarian politics, focused more on resolving the issues of people on the ground rather than constitutional ideals of an Irish Republic or Continued Union. It cannot be ignored that the APNI also represents a new generation of those in the counties that view themselves as European In addition or even before Irish or British. The continuing decline of the SDLP and UUP indicate their fading role within the political system, unable to establish a political niché for themselves where more outspoken and radical alternatives have gained their support, even if the DUP is now losing the voters it gained from the UUP to its own more radical challenger, the TUV. The collapse of the Greens can be down to a few issues, many favouring the APNI as a representative of centrist politics, and also their parent party in the South going into an unpopular coalition with Fine Gael (EPP) and Fianna Fáil (RE), who are both seen as untrustworthy in the North.

As mentioned however, despite all of these historic results, not much will change for the foreseeable future. The DUP’s leader Jeffery Donaldson—who now sits as both a Member of Parliament in Westminster and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Stormont—says he will not form any government with Sinn Féin until the aforementioned loyalist concerns with the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved. Some argue this is a pretext to avoid allowing a government to form under Sinn Féin, but the result is the same. While usually this would cause another interregnum, it is very likely the existing caretaker regime will continue, implementing previously agreed upon policy and passing consensus budgets to ensure the place continues to function, unlike during the lack of government between 2017–2020. If a government will be formed somewhere down the line or if another election is called later this year remains to be seen. However, once again the Caretaker system provides a buffer that has previously not existed in Northern Ireland.

For Northern Ireland, the elections of 2022 have heralded immense changes: the first time an Irish nationalist party has won the plurality in the parliament, the highest share of votes for non-sectarian parties at 20%, a surge for the reactionary TUV, and record lows for the once dominant UUP and its opponent the SDLP. Yet once again due to constitutional issues—albeit this time with Brexit and not the union—the gears of democracy are slow to turn, and Northern Ireland remains in a holding pattern until they can be resolved. The more things change, the more they stay the same.