Almost two years of political stagnation. Decision making is paralyzed. Growing tension in a place where peace remains fragile even after the end of decades of sectarian fighting.
There are few places where the impact of Britain’s departure from the European Union has been felt more sharply than in Northern Ireland.
But there were growing hopes on Wednesday that one of Brexit’s most poisoned legacies has been alleviated – at least for now – by a new plan that should bring the territory’s political parties back into government.
In a dry 76-page document published on Wednesday (coinciding with the fourth anniversary of Brexit coming into force), the British government laid out the details of the agreement it reached with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to end its boycott. of the power-sharing assembly in Belfast.
Crucially, the government said it would reduce controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, addressing the biggest source of tension within the DUP, whose mainly Protestant supporters want to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Unionists had argued that the imposition of post-Brexit customs checks on goods arriving by sea from Britain had driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
On Wednesday, the British government addressed this fear head-on, naming the document in which it unveiled the deal “Safeguard the Unionand said the package of measures it had agreed with the DUP – including guarantees of the territory’s constitutional place within the United Kingdom and £3.3bn in financial stimulus – would “reaffirm and strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and its Internal market”. “
After months of talks and a late-night meeting of the DUP executive that stretched into Tuesday morning, the combined proposals, along with mounting public pressure within Northern Ireland, appeared to have been enough to persuade the party to return to the government after almost two years.
Assuming there is no last-minute delay, the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont, outside Belfast, could be operational by the weekend, paving the way for a seismic moment in which the territory’s top leadership role It will be held for the first time by Sinn Fein, after emerging as the largest party in the 2022 elections in Northern Ireland.
“It’s a very important moment,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, noting that the DUP agreed to re-share power with Sinn Féin, which mainly represents nationalist voters and is committed to a single thing that is anathema to all unionists: a united Ireland.
The British government, Professor Hayward said, had offered some relaxation of the trade deals against which the DUP had campaigned so hard. But because Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains a member of the European Union, challenges will persist, he said, adding: “Dealing with the consequences of Brexit will always be more difficult for Northern Ireland. ”.
Seeing elected representatives back seated at Stormont will bring relief to many voters after two years in which civil servants have maintained the basic functions of government but failed to make more important decisions.
Wait times for healthcare procedures in the territory are long, public sector workers have been denied pay increases they would otherwise have received and strikers recently took to the streets in a large protest.
However, the origins of the political crisis underline the destabilizing effect of Brexit on the territory and the extent to which even prosaic issues such as the terms of trade can have enormous symbolic importance in a place still grappling with a history of bloody sectarian strife.
There were profound reasons not to resurrect a visible land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. During the years of violence known as the Troubles, border checkpoints were attacked by paramilitary groups. Those border points disappeared after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended most of the violence, and no one wanted them back.
So after Brexit, the solution was to keep Northern Ireland in the European Union’s economic goods market, allowing trucks to move freely across the land border with Ireland.
But as Britain was leaving the European bloc, cargo checks had to happen somewhere and, to the anger of the unionist community, that meant checks on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland, creating an invisible border in the Sea of ireland.
Last year, Rishi Sunak, British Prime Minister, reached a new agreement with the European Union, known as the Windsor Framework Agreement. That won some concessions from Brussels to reduce those controls, but they were insufficient for the DUP and its leader Jeffrey Donaldson.
Donaldson’s change of heart may reflect the deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland caused by political deadlock and the imminence of a general election in Britain, which Sunak has said will likely be held in the autumn.
“I think the motivation is electoral, and the DUP needs some decoration and something to get out of this situation,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. He said the party would have started “haemorrhaging support if there were strikes of the magnitude of recent weeks and if it had become common for nurses to leave their jobs to work in supermarkets because they could not receive pay rises”.
Professor Hayward’s theory is that the DUP wanted some time in government to help spend London’s extra £3.3bn before the election, in order to maximize its vote.
Mild-mannered and pragmatic, Donaldson took a risk by returning to the assembly because some senior members of his party opposed the measure. The topic was so divisive that, during a five-hour internal meeting to discuss it Monday night, details of the conversation were leaked and posted live on social media.
Donaldson on Wednesday defended the deal, saying it achieved his objectives, although he admitted he had reached an agreement. “It is perfect? No, it is not. Have we delivered everything we would have wanted at this stage? No, we haven’t,” he said.
His critics will now pore over the details of the published document to see if it lives up to what he promised.
To some extent, the DUP has become caught in a trap of its own making. In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, he campaigned to leave the European Union, although the majority of voters in Northern Ireland ultimately voted to remain.
The return of a functioning government to Northern Ireland will be a welcome success for Sunak, who has been struggling to control his restive Conservative Party against a backdrop of persistently low poll numbers.
“You have to give Rishi Sunak credit, he accomplished what others haven’t,” Donaldson said on Wednesday. However, while the Prime Minister may have finally cut one of the Gordian knots created by Brexit, there was a reminder that some of its wider consequences are only beginning to be felt, as new controls are imposed on imports of food, plants and animals to Great Britain from the European Union. The union took effect on Wednesday.
Flowers, fruits, vegetables and cut meats from the EU now they will require health certificates, and more physical checks will be required from April. The government has already delayed the introduction of border controls five times, with industry groups warning they could cause delays and increase costs.