All eyes on the North

All eyes turned to the North of Ireland this week where elections for the 90-seat assembly took place.

It was only weeks ago that The Politics Hour covered the then fortunes of the beleaguered power-sharing arrangements in the North after it was collapsed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as a protest against the Protocol. More on that later!

In March, the decision by the DUP that Paul Givan would walk away as First Minister, the top post in The Executive, also resulted in Michelle O Neill, the deputy First Minister, being removed from her post by default given the joint nature of the office, which is part of a mandatory coalition.

The DUP was criticised by its opponents of playing politics in an attempt to shore up hardline loyalist votes, even at the cost of bringing government institutions down at a time when vital legislation needed passed and the budget for the next three years had yet to be agreed.

Then followed elections last week, which saw historic results. Sinn Fein was returned as the largest party at Stormont which entitles them to nominate Michelle O Neill as the first republican, and nationalist, to the post of First Minister.

However, that can only happen if the DUP nominate for the deputy First Minister post. That looks extremely unlikely at this stage and the hiatus at Stormont looks set to continue, maybe for months, with the DUP insisting that the Protocol must be scrapped before any Executive is again formed.

So, what exactly is the Protocol?

The Protocol was born out of Brexit. In 2016, the majority of people in the North voted against Brexit in the referendum.

The Protocol was agreed as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated between the British Government and the European Union. It is designed to place checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and the North, and onwards into the EU.

This ensures that vital cross-border trade between the north and south of Ireland continues as normal and prevents a return of checkpoints along the politically sensitive border that separates the country.

Political unionism, which supported Brexit, rejects the protocol, citing it as a threat to the constitutional arrangements of the union. In September of last year, the leaders of the four largest unionist parties in the North signed a joint declaration reinforcing their opposition to the protocol.

So, what happens next?

Some may say “so here we go again” as Stormont again looks like it is about to be lunged into crisis. That has been the case five times since the power-sharing institutions were formed as part of the international peace treaty, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

If the DUP do not nominate a deputy First Minister, then an Executive cannot be formed. Ministerial portfolios, apart from First and deputy First Ministers, from the last mandate will continue to be overseen by previous Ministers for six months, apart from that held by the SDLP. Their Minister lost her seat last week and the party has since announced it will go into opposition in the next mandate. If the stalemate continues, the North could be set for another election in 24 weeks

No surprise then that the rhetoric from parties remains much the same as it did when we interviewed them a few weeks back. Thank you to Professor Jon Tonge for talking with me – if you would like to listen to the full discussion and interview available on Spotify – click here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6zkywXXujTlqU7QxKtICGR

Kaliyah Smith

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