Northern Ireland is heading towards political limbo. With Sinn Féin becoming the majority party in Northern Ireland after the recent Assembly elections, the Democratic Unionist Party (the second largest party) are currently refusing to nominate a Deputy First Minister. Consequently, an executive cannot form to govern Northern Ireland.
The DUP have chosen not to take their seats in the Assembly unless the U.K. Government renegotiates the Northern Ireland Protocol, which they view as problematic as it creates a quasi-border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland.
While in the EU, no border was required between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, since both were in the single market. However, due to the UK’s departure, some form of border had to be placed somewhere between the EU and the U.K.
In a different state, this may have been straightforward. However, due to the political, historical and social context of Northern Ireland, a hard border could not be placed on the island itself. Doing so would violate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended over three decades of conflict in the region.
Therefore, Johnson’s government negotiated a protocol arrangement which essentially placed a border in the Irish sea, between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. This has been criticised by the DUP and other unionists, especially since Johnson denied that his arrangement would create an internal border.
In response, the British Government have now signalled that they want to renegotiate the protocol. Johnson visited Belfast recently to meet with the leaders of the main political parties. He acknowledged the DUP’s concerns and suggested that the protocol is not workable in its current form. However, the EU is refusing to renegotiate the fundamentals of the agreement.
Although the Prime Minister may criticise the EU for its position, it is necessary to understand their reasoning. The protocol was an arrangement created by Johnson himself; it was he who negotiated the deal with the EU, it was he who praised the deal and it was he who signed the deal. Concerns were raised before the signing, yet Johnson and the Conservatives dismissed these criticisms and insisted the protocol would work.
Now, the British government have suggested that they will act unilaterally and change the conditions of the protocol without the EU’s consent if the EU does not change its position. However, this would be a reckless decision.
In a time when democracy is being threatened across the world (such as with the invasion of Ukraine and with the far-right attacking Congress last year), the U.K. government should not be breaking international agreements.
After all, the U.K. cannot lecture other countries on protecting democracy if at the same time they are willing to disregard international agreements.
If the U.K. unilaterally scraps parts of the protocol, then the U.K. will lose the trust of other countries. Why should any country make an agreement with the U.K., if the government is so willing to ignore the agreed conditions? If the government acts unilaterally, this could also trigger a trade war with the EU amidst a cost of living crisis.
Although the government has claimed that any action they take will be within the law, concerns remain that the government’s plans will in fact constitute a breach of international law. Hence, leading figures such as the Taoiseach of Ireland, have warned against acting unilaterally.
A sensible approach must be taken, with all actors being involved in the process of renegotiation. The U.K. government must take responsibility for negotiating a flawed protocol, while the EU must recognise that the protocol is causing political tension in Northern Ireland.
The positions of the majority party, Sinn Féin, and other political parties must also be considered. It is worth noting that most members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are in favour of the protocol remaining. Hence, to scrap the protocol or to renegotiate it without the input of all political actors is to essentially appease the minority.
In the meantime, the DUP should form an executive in Northern Ireland. If they refuse to do so then they are also refusing to engage in democratic processes. This will lead to Northern Ireland returning to political limbo, in which a new set of elections may have to be called to resolve the issue.
At a time of significant political problems, such as the cost of living crisis, it is wrong to prevent a functional executive from forming. The DUP should accept that most members of the Assembly do not support their position on the protocol, thus the U.K. Government should not renegotiate the protocol solely to appease them. Instead, any renegotiation must be approved by Sinn Féin and other political parties.
The recent history of Northern Ireland has shown that progress can be made when republicans, unionists and independents are around the same table. For any side to leave the table when political difficulties arise reflects an unwillingness to co-operate and a dereliction of their duties to the people they seek to represent.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve better.