Sinn Féin northern leader, Michelle O'Neill makes her election acceptance speech. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Sinn Fein’s victory brings new urgency to Protocol crisis

Northern Ireland Protocol looms over Ulster politics as the Nationalists threaten to upend business as usual in Belfast

The results of the Northern Ireland election, which were determined over the weekend, were described by many newspapers and websites as a “seismic shock”. These outlets declared Sinn Fein the winner as the largest party, with some even claiming it had “taken power” in the province from unionists. Most of The Critic’s readers will be informed enough to know that these headlines were nonsense.

When devolution is operating (and currently it is not), Northern Ireland is governed by a power-sharing executive that divides ministerial responsibilities between the parties, based on the number of seats they hold in the Assembly. Each of the province’s MLAs designates as “unionist”, “nationalist” or “other”, with the two largest blocs effectively exercising a veto over most controversial policy decisions.

At this election, Sinn Fein became the biggest party thanks to the DUP’s poor performance, but it failed to gain any extra seats and its vote share increased by only one percentage point. Unionists in the Assembly lost three seats, while nationalists lost four. The Alliance Party, which is slavishly pro-EU but claims neutrality on the constitutional question, took 13.5 per cent of the vote, but more than doubled its haul of seats.

Unionist candidates commanded a greater share of the vote than nationalists

There are still more unionist than Irish nationalist MLAs, and unionist candidates commanded a greater share of the vote than nationalists. If a power-sharing executive is formed, Sinn Fein will be entitled to nominate the province’s first minister, while the DUP will be invited to take the deputy first minister’s position, but these posts carry identical, “co-equal” powers.

None of this context means that the unionist parties achieved a creditable result, or that they are serving their supporters well. In fact, their relative decline is arguably down to the DUP’s failure to prevent the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Ulster Unionist Party’s (UUP) inability to develop a message that is both attractive to younger voters and firm on the Union.

Neither party was helped by the Westminster government, whose regular threats to dismantle the Irish sea border remained unfulfilled in the run up to the polls. This dithering damaged unionists’ credibility among their own voters, as well as the reputation of the prime minister in Northern Ireland. It encouraged the jibes of Irish nationalists and pro-EU liberals, who claimed that the Conservatives would never care about Ulster and would always let unionism down.

The government’s failure to either agree to changes to the protocol with the EU, or act unilaterally, put the future of the new Assembly in doubt before it was even constituted. During its campaign, the DUP emphasised the threat of a “border poll” to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK more than its stance on the protocol, but it believes it has a mandate to refuse to join an executive, unless the Irish Sea border is neutralised first. Effectively, that means no power-sharing government in Ulster.

With this potential “crisis” about to escalate next week, when the parties are due to nominate the first and deputy first ministers, the Conservatives have again briefed that they will act alone if there is no progress in negotiations with Brussels. The foreign minister, Liz Truss, issued a press release, detailing some of the starkest problems that the protocol caused in Northern Ireland, as well as new difficulties that will arise whenever grace periods and mitigations run out.

She highlighted the imminent unavailability of many lines of groceries in supermarkets, the delayed requirement for people in Great Britain to fill in 50 data fields to send a parcel to Ulster and the £280 vet’s fee that Northern Irish pet owners will have to pay to bring their animals on a trip to the mainland.

Equally, she could have included the 27 per cent rise in transport prices that the Road Haulage Association says will soon apply to goods bound for Northern Ireland, when a government scheme to disguise this cost runs out. Or the twenty-nine proposed European laws, identified by civil servants working for the House of Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee, that are likely to apply to the province, but not the rest of the UK. Or the fact that the Northern Irish fishing fleet will be banned from landing its catch in Ulster’s ports, when the protocol’s provisions are applied in full.

Hybrid governance is incompatible with the terms of the Belfast Agreement

Unfortunately, the mad, vindictive, disproportionate nature of the sea border does not necessarily mean that the government will follow through on its threats. Ominously, the Queen’s Speech yesterday did not contain detailed proposals to set aside the worst excesses of the protocol, never mind restore Northern Ireland to its full membership of the British internal market. Truss’s statement is being taken seriously, but we’ve seen apparently serious developments before, and the prime minister has eventually backed off in the face of hysteria from the EU, Irish nationalists and pro-Brussels politicians at Westminster.

If the government’s manoeuvring is designed only to prevent an impasse at Stormont, it is unlikely to succeed. The DUP suffered a bruising election, losing a significant chunk of its support to the TUV, which takes a tougher line on the protocol. Surely the DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, will not risk his party’s future on the strength of vague promises to deal with the sea border eventually.

This election, and the continuing impact of the protocol, suggest there is a three-way struggle to determine Northern Ireland’s future that will continue to destabilise power-sharing.

In theory, the unionist parties want to restore the province’s status as an integral part of the UK. This aspiration will be unfulfilled so long as the sea border persists, but unionists contribute to their own problems with frequent outbursts of parochialism and confused ideas about the fundamentals of the Union.

Irish nationalists remain committed to destroying Northern Ireland in favour of a 32-county, independent Irish republic. That outcome already seemed unlikely, but the election confirmed that any all-Ireland state is likely to be shaped by extremists from Sinn Fein, which is an unattractive prospect for otherwise persuadable voters.

The third option is more dangerous and insidious, and it has never been set out honestly for the public to assess. The influential Belfast Telegraph journalist, Sam McBride, summed it up yesterday when he wrote, “Northern Ireland is now a laboratory in which a new form of hybrid governance is being tested.”

The protocol is entrenching the kind of “hybrid” state that has long been favoured by influential parts of the establishment in Ulster, many “civil society” busybodies and the Alliance Party. It prioritises Northern Ireland’s links to the EU over its ties to the rest of the UK, irrespective of how economically damaging or destabilising that might be. It makes Northern Ireland a constitutional “place apart”, depriving people of a meaningful say in which nation state they belong to, or a full role in its politics, economy and society.

The proponents of this hybrid will try to impose their infantilising future on Northern Ireland with or without the say so of its people, as they always have done. It is incompatible with the terms of the Belfast Agreement, which they otherwise claim to be sacrosanct, but their dismal vision received a boost at this election. It will become established beyond repair unless the government acts soon on the protocol.

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