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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOM NICHOLSON
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/TOM NICHOLSON

Northern Ireland elections on Thursday could mark a major shift in the region’s sensitive political balance, and undermine Boris Johnson’s bid to redraw the terms of the UK’s split from the EU.

Opinion polls show Sinn Fein — whose ultimate goal is to unite the region with the Republic of Ireland — on course to become the biggest party. That would be the first time for a nationalist party since Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly was born out of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which largely ended decades of violence between unionists and nationalists.

Such an outcome would hold profound significance for Northern Ireland, which has been historically dominated by parties loyal to Britain, led by the Democratic Unionist Party. Sinn Fein, seen as the political wing of the IRA during the violence known as the Troubles, wants planning to begin for a united Ireland — though that remains a long-term goal with significant hurdles.

An immediate effect would most likely be felt in London, where Johnson’s pro-unionist Conservative government is trying to push the EU to rewrite parts of the Brexit agreement it says is disrupting trade in Northern Ireland.

For unionists, the Northern Ireland Protocol — which kept the region in the EU’s customs union to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland — represents an attack on Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. The DUP is demanding its removal as a condition of returning to a power-sharing government.  

But wrangling over the protocol has played into Sinn Fein’s hands, while hurting support for the DUP. It also presents a headache for Johnson, who has justified his hard-line stance with the EU by saying the protocol doesn’t have the confidence of the region’s population.

At an event in London last week, the UK’s former chief Brexit negotiator David Frost — who says the protocol should be replaced — urged unionists to direct their anger at Brussels rather than London to avoid weakening Johnson’s hand.

‘More difficult’

While the DUP has centred much of its election campaign on the protocol issue, a strong result for Sinn Fein — or other parties which have accepted the arrangement such as the cross-community Alliance Party — could undermine the Conservative party and unionist view that it isn’t working.

“It’s entirely plausible that after the elections we’ll have a political situation in Northern Ireland that’s even more difficult than the one we’ve had in previous months,” Frost said.

In LucidTalk’s final poll for the Belfast Telegraph, Sinn Fein had 26% support compared with 20% for the DUP. The gap was wider at just more than eight percentage points in a University of Liverpool/Irish News poll, with the DUP neck-and-neck with the centrist Alliance Party on 18.2%. 

“It does make a difference for the UK government in terms of messaging to say ‘we need to scrap the protocol,’ when large numbers in Northern Ireland are voting for party who supports it,” said David Henig, who focuses on UK trade at the European Centre for International Political Economy think-tank.

Having a Sinn Fein first minister would be a clear sign that Northern Ireland is not following London’s preferred direction of travel. Though polls suggest growing support for the party doesn’t necessarily mean increased enthusiasm for a united Ireland, it would be a significant boost for nationalists.

Historical moment

“The creation of Northern Ireland was really to shore up the unionists’ majority in the northeast of the island,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. “So to have a situation a hundred years on, in which Sinn Fein is the largest party in Northern Ireland, is in and of itself extraordinarily significant.”

Of course, the opposite would be true for unionists, and that’s why Northern Ireland likely faces the prospect of a prolonged political stalemate.

When then DUP first minister Paul Givan resigned in protest against the protocol in February, Northern Ireland’s government was hamstrung because it meant Sinn Fein deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill also had to step down. 

In the region’s power-sharing system, the positions of first minister and deputy first minister — effectively one unionist and one nationalist — are equal and one cannot be in place without the other. 

Looming stalemate

New legislation means that the assembly can continue to function for six months without an executive, though it cannot sign off on key decisions.

“At the very first hurdle of forming a new executive, we’d really expect things to grind to a halt,” said Hayward.

Johnson’s government plans to introduce a bill in the parliamentary session starting May 10 to give ministers power to unilaterally turn off parts of the Brexit deal. In addition to dealing with the protocol, the move may also encourage the DUP to take its seat in Northern Ireland’s administration.

However, such a move is likely to be met by strong EU opposition, and could result in legal action and the imposition of retaliatory tariffs.

Brexit fallout

It would also frustrate those in Northern Ireland who want the devolved government to focus on domestic issues such as housing, healthcare and the cost of living — topics which were key pillars of several parties’ election campaigns, including Sinn Fein’s.

To be sure, it’s not a given that Sinn Fein will come out on top. Under Northern Ireland’s transferable vote system, the DUP could pick up votes from supporters of the Traditional Unionist Voice Party, which had 9% backing in the LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph poll and also strongly opposes the protocol.

Meanwhile if Alliance becomes the third-biggest party, it could add to calls for constitutional reform to the power-sharing system which gives preference to parties which designate as unionist or nationalist.

Whatever the result, the ramifications will be significant. A Sinn Fein first minister would bolster nationalist views on both sides of the Irish border, and would likely intensify resistance in Dublin — and therefore the EU — to any changes to the protocol. At the same time, the pressure from unionists on Johnson to rip up the agreement will be intense.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
Bloomberg


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