Despite Britain’s significant role in influencing the geopolitical landscape on the island of Ireland, there is a notable lack of knowledge in the rest of the UK- and worryingly within Westminster- over Northern Ireland’s politics. It is likely that this apathy, or misunderstanding, has been fostered by British politicians’ tendency to avoid the topic of Northern Ireland, and neglect the political issues for fear of upsetting the fragile peace. It will surprise many then that Northern Ireland is facing yet another election six months after their last, and that during this period, they have been without a functioning government.
To comprehend how this occurred, it is crucial to understand how Stormont works. Due to the divided nature of Northern Irish society, cross-community power sharing is one of the main components that aids the functioning of its parliament. This operates at an executive level, and is made up of the joint offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister- both of which have equal powers- as well as a multi-party executive. The largest party appoints the First Minister, and the second largest the Deputy Minister. This power-sharing executive was a product of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and is essential to ensuring both unionist and nationalist communities are represented.
Thus, when Sinn Féin achieved their historic victory in May, the party was poised to appoint Michelle O’Neill as their first ever nationalist First Minister. However, the DUP- which has historically been the largest party- boycotted the power-sharing executive and refused to nominate a Deputy First Minister. Without appointments to both executive positions, power-sharing could not be carried out and therefore, no government could be formed.
The DUP said that it blocked the consolidation of the new parliament due to concerns over the post-Brexit Irish sea border, forming part of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This border puts checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, an unviable outcome from a unionist perspective. It undermines their position within the Union, with border checks implying that Northern Ireland is a separate country. Unionists fear this may probe the beginning of a long process of the reunification of the island of Ireland. The party maintained their position, and stated that they would not return to Stormont until this was undone. Despite promises of a resolution from Westminster, the long-standing distrust between them and Stormont meant that the DUP were not willing to go back on their word until the matter was settled.
To some extent, DUP resistance may have been motivated by Sinn Féin’s victory. This was an unprecedented event; a unionist party has always held the most seats in Stormont since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921. Many believe that the power-sharing system was actually designed to prevent a nationalist majority from ever coming to fruition, and it is unsettling for unionists that Northern Ireland is on the cusp of having its first nationalist First Minister. Some believe that the DUP feel “that because the First Minister’s office has always been held by a unionist, Northern Ireland essentially still had a unionist Prime Minister”, like was seen before direct rule was reimposed from London in 1972. This change to the status quo has worried many unionist politicians, as Sinn Féin’s success is a material sign that the nationalist movement is gaining traction in the North, which is perceived as not just a threat to DUP influence, but the current geopolitics of the entire region.
This is obviously not a problem with a quick remedy. However, the October deadline for Stormont to reconvene has now passed, meaning all eyes are on Westminster. The current rules stipulate that another election has to be called within twelve weeks. But Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, has assured that this will not be the case, in an attempt to avoid canvassing over Christmas. This has received mixed responses: Sinn Féin encouraged the DUP to come back to the negotiating table, citing issues like the cost-of-living crisis as more pressing. Other parties are relieved that an election will not take place now, as many believe it a waste of public funds. However, Heaton-Harris himself has faced criticism over his unclear position; he repeatedly promised to call a new poll if the deadline passed, and then once it did, he announced its indefinite delay. Heaton-Harris’s abrupt U-turn demonstrates Westminster’s style of approach concerning Northern Ireland, and that many senior politicians do not understand what is at stake. Speculation suggests that he may hold off until the 4th of May, when people will be heading to the polls to vote in the UK local elections. However, by that point, Northern Ireland will have been without a government for a whole year. In all, it seems that Northern Ireland is stuck with a power vacuum for a while longer, all the while domestic social issues and the cost-of-living crisis rage on unaddressed.