Following two years of political paralysis, Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly is set to return to full working order after a new agreement on trade between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the UK government was ratified by the House of Commons on Thursday.
The Protestant DUP – Northern Ireland’s largest pro-UK party – collapsed the nationalist-unionist power-sharing government in February 2022 in protest at trading arrangements made in the wake of the United Kingdom’s official withdrawal from the European Union.
This week, the leader of the ultra-conservative DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, welcomed the new agreement, which, he said, would safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market.
Ever since the assembly first sat in 1998, when three decades of conflict between Protestant loyalists and Catholic republican paramilitaries in Northern Ireland largely came to an end under the Good Friday Agreement, unionists (those who wished to remain in the UK) have dominated the Belfast-based legislature.
However, when the devolved government is restored, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein will become the first Irish nationalist to assume the role of Northern Ireland’s first minister following her party’s success in the May 2022 assembly elections.
Why did the DUP dissolve the assembly in 2022?
Prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in January 2020 – a process also known as Brexit – trade between the UK and its neighbouring EU member state, the Republic of Ireland, which shares a land border with Northern Ireland, was seamless. But when the UK ceased to be part of the Brussels-based European bloc, a new arrangement had to be reached.
The first post-Brexit trade deal agreed between the UK and the EU in January 2021, the Northern Ireland Protocol, aimed to permit trade to continue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It introduced checks on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) at Northern Irish ports rather than at the border with the Irish Republic. This also included checks on goods which were destined to remain in Northern Ireland.
The ardently pro-British DUP, which itself supported the UK’s decision to leave the EU, contended that such an agreement effectively placed a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, prompting the party to suspend its involvement with the assembly.
A later UK-EU deal, known as the Windsor Framework, which built on the Northern Ireland Protocol, was agreed in 2023, but this did not satisfy the DUP either.
What’s in the latest trade deal?
The DUP’s new deal with the British government includes an end to routine checks on goods arriving from Great Britain that are destined to remain in Northern Ireland. This, together with other amendments, has paved the way for the DUP’s return – and a potential recommencement of the devolved government within days.
The British government has also pledged a 3.3-billion-pound ($4.2bn) financial package for Northern Ireland on the resumption of the assembly.
But while Donaldson claimed that the new agreement removed the Irish Sea border, not everyone in his party has been convinced by the new deal.
Sammy Wilson, a House of Commons DUP parliamentarian, complained that, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland had still not completely severed itself from the EU.
“Despite the gains that my party leader and deputy party leader have made in these negotiations, the fact remains that in Northern Ireland there are still EU-manned border posts being built which will create a border within our own country,” he claimed.
What impact has the lack of a functioning government had on Northern Ireland?
Without a working government, the job of running Northern Ireland’s day-to-day affairs has fallen to civil servants.
John Garry, a professor of political behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast, told Al Jazeera, “Decision-making has been difficult because civil servants do not have a political mandate to make important economic decisions that affect service provision.”
Indeed, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has painted a bleak picture of the state of Northern Ireland’s healthcare system.
“Northern Ireland’s health crisis has worsened considerably over the past two years,” reported the BMJ on January 31. “Waiting lists are at an all time high – the worst anywhere in the UK or Ireland – while many GP surgeries are teetering on the brink.”
Could Irish unification happen under a republican first minister?
Twenty-six years after the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland – known as the Troubles – the UK’s smallest constituent nation remains divided between those agitating for unification with the Irish Republic and those wishing to remain part of the UK.
In May 2022, elections for the Northern Irish assembly saw Irish republican party Sinn Fein secure the most seats for the first time, pushing the DUP into second place and reviving talk of a poll on Irish unity.
Under the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which brought the assembly into being, Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists are required to share power, with the roles of first and deputy first minister decided on the basis of electoral mandates.
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s president, said earlier this week that Irish unification — essentially Northern Ireland merging with the Republic of Ireland — was now within “touching distance”.
But despite the elevation of Sinn Fein’s vice president, Michelle O’Neill, to first minister, nationalists in Northern Ireland are still some way off from being able to win over a majority of Northern Ireland’s voting public in favour of a united Ireland.
“The latest research, as published in recent weeks in The Irish Times, indicates that there is not a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of Irish unification,” said Garry. In that research, it was found that half favoured remaining in the United Kingdom, 30 percent favoured unification with Ireland, while the remainder either didn’t know or would not vote.
“So, public opinion is significantly favouring the Union rather than Irish unification,” said Garry.