Stormont restored – Sinn Féin to appoint Northern Ireland’s first minister

Feb 4, 2024
Stormont Ireland.

Waiting for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland (NI) has been like watching the grass grow as the paint dries on a slow boat to China. But I am pleased to report that the wait is now over, though my backyard resembles a jungle and the paint on the boat is cracking again.

The last two months in particular have been excruciating with confident predictions day after day of an imminent return to Stormont – it will be by the weekend … early next week … before Christmas … early in the new year.

Finally, in the dying days of January the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, announced that DUP MLAs will take their seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was elected more than 20 months ago. The announcement followed a long and tumultuous meeting of the 130-member DUP executive the night before.

As a result, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill will become NI’s First Minister. It will be the first time that a republican or a nationalist has assumed this position, previously held exclusively by unionists. It marks a major break from the not-so-distant past when Protestant unionism exercised an unassailable hegemony over Ireland’s six northern counties.

The new agreement is a major turn-around for the DUP, which began its boycott of Stormont in February 2022, three months before the elections, vowing not to re-enter devolved government unless and until its demands were met regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Over the past three years, I have written several articles for Pearls and Irritations on the NIP, its effect on the politics of NI, and the stalemate at Stormont. Here is a link to those articles.

In summary, the NIP is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (WA) agreed in October 2019 under which the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Union on 1 February 2020. The WA came into full effect on 31 December 2020 following a transition period. The purpose of the NIP was to ensure the absence of a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland by mandating customs checks for goods entering NI from Great Britain and by requiring NI to comply with certain EU rules that apply to goods traded in the EU’s single market.

For a short while the DUP was willing to work within the framework of the NIP but this changed following a devastating poll in August 2021. According to the LucidTalk poll the DUP’s support had dropped to a miserable 13 per cent. In attempting to be a responsible party of government, the DUP had alienated its base.

More than two-thirds of unionists oppose the NIP. They complain that it effectively places a border in the Irish Sea, subjecting GB-NI trade to customs and regulatory checks. The protocol also makes NI the only part of the UK still subject to EU rules and the European Court of Justice. Regardless of the economic benefits of NI’s membership of both the EU single market and the UK internal market, these unionists oppose the NIP because they believe it undermines NI’s place in the union and their British identity.

As a result of the DUP’s decline in support, the party dropped its cooperative approach and began demanding the NIP be scrapped. When the UK government failed to deliver, the DUP First Minister, Paul Givan, resigned in protest in February 2022, thus collapsing the Stormont government. Then, as we have seen, the DUP refused to take its seats following the assembly elections in May 2022, thus preventing the appointment of a new Executive.

In February 2023, in an attempt to appease the DUP, the British government and the EU agreed changes to the NIP – the Windsor Framework (WF). But it made no difference. In 2021 the DUP had set out seven tests for what it regarded as a satisfactory outcome to the dispute over the NIP. The WF met only two of those tests. The DUP could not end its boycott of Stormont without losing face and the votes of hardline unionists.

Some commentators have suggested the real reason the DUP refused to enter the newly elected assembly was because Sinn Féin (SF), as the party with the most seats, was entitled to elect the First Minister. But the situation is more complicated than that.

In any normal majoritarian democracy, political parties need to attract a majority of votes across the electorate. Under NI’s power-sharing system, unionist and nationalist parties effectively operate in silos, each competing for the votes of their particular community with little cross-over likely to occur.

With unionist parties and nationalist parties each attracting about 40 per cent of the vote and the rest going to non-aligned parties, the DUP’s primary aim is to maximise its share of the unionist vote. Its main competition is the moderate Ulster Unionist Party and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

Although opinion polls have shown that a majority of NI voters want Stormont restored so that their long-neglected needs can be addressed, a majority of unionists oppose a return to devolved government. Consequently, the boycott has played well for the DUP. The latest LucidTalk poll shows it on 28 per cent.

By abandoning its abstentionist stand, the DUP risks splitting the party and losing votes to the TUV without the compensating effect of attracting votes of nationalist or non-aligned electors. Even before the deal was announced, the TUV had gone into overdrive, attacking the DUP over its ‘sell-out’.

The agreement between the DUP and the British government is set out in a Command Paper Safeguarding the Union. It includes practical mitigations of the operation of the NIP regarding checks on goods entering NI from GB, legislation to safeguard NI’s place in the union (described by some as ‘comfort legislation’), and amendments to the UK Internal Market Act 2020 strengthening NI’s ‘unfettered access’ to the UK internal market. What these measures can achieve is constrained by the terms of the WF. Any deviation would need EU consent. A sleeper issue not addressed is the effect on NI-EU trade of the UK’s future exercise of its Brexit freedom to diverge from EU standards for goods.

The best explanation as to why the DUP leadership has decided to risk a split and a loss of votes is that it has eventually realised the party had painted itself into a corner with its stand over the NIP. The WA is an international agreement between the UK and the EU over which NI has no effective control. Once the Sunak-led government decided to abandon the Johnson/Truss ‘war’ on the EU by negotiating the WF, the DUP ceased to have leverage, apart from standing in the corner and stamping its feet.

But petulance can get you only so far. Meanwhile the situation on the ground in NI has been in steady decline. Without effective representative government, public services in NI, particularly health, education, and welfare, have deteriorated. At the same time, talk has increasingly turned to long-term alternatives to the political impasse.

Reform of Stormont is unlikely as neither the DUP nor SF wants to ditch the veto, which both have used when it suits them. Those who support the union for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons have begun to question whether it is worth preserving; perhaps NI would be better off uniting with the Republic if only to ensure stable government.

Gradually, very gradually, a majority in the DUP leadership has come to realise that indefinite abstention is not in the best interests of the union. Instead, it might be its death knell. After all, a vote for reunification requires only a simple majority of NI’s voters, not cross-community support.

But apart from the restlessness of voters, in whose hands the fate of NI ultimately lies, the patience of perfidious Albion is not boundless. How long before a British prime minister would cry out in frustration, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent province?’

Despite the risks, a majority of the DUP leadership has decided it is preferable in the long term to demonstrate that the union does work, to prove to the people of NI they are better off remaining in the UK than they would be as citizens of Ireland. After all, if NI’s foot in both the EU and UK camps does deliver the promised prosperity, NI voters will be less willing to abandon NI’s unique status.

So far the loudest critics of the deal have been Brexiters in the Conservative Party fearful it will restrict the UK’s ability to diverge from EU standards. Donaldson has responded to his NI unionist critics by challenging them to demonstrate what they have achieved in changing the NIP/WF: ‘I refuse to be poked and prodded by people who have delivered nothing’.

Whether the DUP will emerge intact and electorally successful following its return to Stormont, only time will tell. But in the meantime, the appointment of SF’s Michelle O’Neill as NI’s First Minister will go down as a watershed moment in the troubled history of NI.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!