Last Thursday’s elections represented a significant moment in Northern Ireland’s history. For the first time, after Sinn Féin won the most seats, a nationalist party is entitled to the position of first minister. The party did better than the polls predicted by holding their 27 seats, but the fracturing of the unionist vote also created the conditions for this significant shift.  

The Traditional Unionist Vote (TUV), with a harder line on the Northern Ireland protocol, took some votes from the DUP – although this failed to translate into seats – but the ‘Alliance surge’ saw the cross-community party double their tally from eight to 17. 

The parties now need to reach an agreement on forming an executive. While this means putting the interests of Northern Irish citizens ahead of party political disagreements, it will also require the UK government to create the conditions to enable power-sharing to work. 

The prospects of re-establishing the Executive quickly are slim 

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement created Northern Ireland’s unique power-sharing arrangements, with its multi-party executive essentially a mandatory coalition led by a first minister and a deputy first minister from different political communities. Despite the titles, these are joint heads of government with equal powers. One cannot hold office without the other.   

The parties entitled to those positions – Sinn Féin and the DUP – will now be asked to nominate a person for the role, but DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has suggested his party will not do so until the Northern Ireland protocol is replaced and the Irish Sea border removed.  

If the DUP stick to this position then the parties will be unable to form an executive and Northern Ireland will be left without a fully functioning government once again.  

The people of Northern Ireland need a functional government 

Recent rule changes mean that the complete power vacuum created by the absence of ministers between January 2017 and 2020 won’t be repeated. Caretaker departmental ministers can resume their pre-election posts for up to 24 weeks, after which point, if there is still no breakthrough, they will cease to hold office and another election will be called. The same would have been true for the first minister and deputy first minister positions, but the resignation of DUP former first minister Paul Givan in February means the top two spots will remain vacant.  

This will mean the Executive Committee, equivalent to the UK Cabinet, will be unable to meet and ministers will not be able to take decisions on issues that cut across different policy areas, such as on budgets, or agree a new programme for government. Ministers will not be able to tackle the issues that poll after poll said were top of NI voters’ concerns – such as long-growing A&E waiting lists – and will be extremely limited in their ability to introduce new measures to address the cost of living crisis.  

Rather than risking deadlock over constitutional divisions, the Northern Ireland political parties should focus on the best interests of their citizens. 

Unilateral UK government action on the Protocol will not facilitate power sharing in the long term 

The UK government also has some responsibility for the current impasse. Brexit, and the Northern Ireland protocol, have been an ongoing source of tension between the political parties, reopening long-standing questions about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. The UK government needs to concentrate on creating the conditions to facilitate power-sharing, but its reported plan to unilaterally override the protocol, while aimed at appeasing the unionist community, will create further division between Northern Ireland’s political parties and make reaching a power-sharing deal less likely.

There is a clear need to address unionist concerns and achieve changes to Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements but this can only come through agreement with the EU. Pretending that the UK can simply do away with its international obligations entirely will set unrealistic expectations, inevitably leaving unionists feeling disappointed and betrayed once again if the UK eventually reaches a compromise with the EU. 

What’s more, a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for parties that support the protocol as a means to manage the consequences of Brexit and prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. Polling from Queen’s University Belfast shows that 50% of people also think that it is overall a ‘good thing’ for Northern Ireland. [1] The UK government must not alienate one side in seeking to address concerns of the other. In 2024 the Northern Ireland Assembly will be asked to consent to the protocol – and on current polling are likely to do so. However, the EU must still take Unionist discontent seriously and work with the UK government to find a long-term solution that minimises checks and processes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.   

The Good Friday Agreement was built on compromise and consent, but the UK government’s approach risks doing the opposite. This would set a bad example, and create a rolling crisis that threatens the long-term viability of the Northern Ireland institutions and denies Northern Ireland the certainty and stability that it needs to flourish politically and economically. 

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  1. https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/post-brexit-governance-ni/ProjectPublications/OpinionPolling/TestingTheTemperature4-I/

Original source – The Institute for Government

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