Brexit risks power-sharing in Stormont, with Sinn Fein expected to be the largest party
Talks between the UK and Brussels over the controversial Northern Ireland protocol agreed by Boris Johnson are in the “living room of the last chance”, a Government source has said, and ministers are preparing unilateral measures to suspend the Brexit deal set if the negotiations fail.
The UK will urge Brussels to abandon its tough stance on Northern Ireland if the province’s political institutions are paralyzed after a Sinn Féin victory in the Stormont election. I understands.
The Prime Minister’s close ally, Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns, has been dispatched to the United States to explain the government’s position to the Joe Biden government and other politicians in Washington DC, who have widely urged the UK and EU to agree to reach a negotiated solution.
Mr Burns is expected to argue that elections in Northern Ireland, in which Republican Sinn Fein is set to return as the largest party for the first time, mean the government may have to react unilaterally to the protocol to uphold power-sharing between unionists and nationalists restored as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement for Peace.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) believes the trade restrictions protocol has driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and has warned it cannot rejoin the Northern Ireland executive unless it is abolished or redrawn .
A Sinn Féin victory in Northern Ireland’s general election could further complicate the restoration of the power-sharing government.
I understands that the UK believes the situation should draw the EU’s attention to relaxing its negotiating position in the interests of peace in Northern Ireland.
Sources said the government would hold off on announcing new legislation in the Queen’s speech next week that would give ministers the power to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol, preferring to give talks with the EU another chance.
But there are concerns in Whitehall that some figures in the EU are mistakenly believing that British and Northern Ireland parties may find it easier to compromise on protocol once the Stormont elections are complete.
On Wednesday evening, Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis said: “We will do everything we can to protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It is clear that the protocol does not have the support of the trade union community and is not working for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
“We need to address the outstanding issues and want to do so in concert with the EU, but as we have always made clear we will not shy away from taking further steps if necessary.”
That Brexit still dominates daily politics in Northern Ireland shows many in the province how little respect Mr Johnson showed for the region when he signed the protocol to “get Brexit done”.
Even as late as yesterday, the final day of the campaign, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr warned that Northern Ireland’s “identity is at risk” due to the existence of the protocol, adding that the “union has been undermined by our own British government”. . .
Politicians in Westminster have had few public discussions about what it would mean for the political face of Northern Ireland – and the UK as a whole – if Sinn Féin were to become the largest party if the votes were counted as expected.
If polls are to be believed, it will be the first time since partition that Northern Ireland has been led by a nationalist party with core beliefs in a united Ireland. Or at least it would if an executive was likely to be formed, which as it stands seems implausible.
Sinn Fein is expected to become the largest party, but with a lower share of the vote than in 2017, and that is entirely due to the DUP’s collapse in recent years, which accelerated after 2019 when it was thrown under the bus by Mr Johnson were and he signed the protocol.
The DUP has since repeatedly stated that it will not enter into a power-sharing agreement as long as the protocol remains in its current form.
During the election campaign, party leader Sir Jeffrey Dondaldson said: “I will not return to an executive branch bound to implement a protocol that damages Northern Ireland every day.”
But behind the DUP’s complaints about the protocol are fears of what a Sinn Fein-led government could mean, including the potential of a united Ireland. Sir Jeffrey added: “At the core of Sinn Féin’s manifesto is their call for a date for a border election.”
Sinn Fein has insisted she would not seek a referendum on a united Ireland, not least because there is no guarantee the party would win one. But primarily it is because the public is more interested in immediate issues like the cost of living crisis and healthcare spending. The more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has also criticized the DUP for “fomenting hysteria” over an upcoming border election.
“They say you have to vote for us or they will demand a border poll. It’s a lie,” UUP leader Doug Beattie said recently.
Such a poll would also require support in the Republic of Ireland and while the latest poll by Ipsos MRBI found a majority of people in the Republic wanted to see a united Ireland, only 15 per cent now wanted a border poll and 52 per cent said so is “not very important” to them.
A more pressing concern for the people of Northern Ireland is what the political paralysis means for stability in the short to medium term. Father Martin Magill, a Catholic priest who rebuked the political class at journalist Lyra McKee’s funeral in 2019, told Sky this week that a political deadlock would “freeze his blood”.
“The standoff here has left us in some very dark places here,” he said. “If there is a standoff … they provide a ground in which gangs like organized crime will thrive.”
This sentiment is perhaps the reason why the centrist Alliance Party’s share of the vote has grown significantly in recent years. According to recent polls, Alliance is tied with DUP at 18.2 percent, and Sinn Fein at 26 percent.