Setting NI apart from the UK’s other nations is the consociational model of democracy known as power-sharing. This model was established in the North under the Good Friday Agreement (1998) to ensure both nationalist and unionist members of the country were represented in the Assembly. The system requires both a nationalist and a unionist first (or deputy first) minister to function, and without either one, the Assembly suspends thus making power-sharing a cornerstone in NI’s democracy.
The most recent threat to power-sharing arose after Brexit negotiations implemented the Northern Ireland Protocol (2020), causing DUP ex-First Minister Paul Girvan to resign in protest thus suspending the Assembly in February 2022 from which it is yet to resume. This article will discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol, including its importance and why it has caused such controversy; it will also explore its impact on Power-sharing in NI and what this means for our devolved government.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the border between the North and the Republic of Ireland has had a unique status. The NI Peace Process ensured no physical barriers or customs checks were implemented over the 270 crossing points. Given the unique and arguably fragile political climate of the North of Ireland, it came as no shock that the outcome of Brexit caused quite a stir among the nationalist community when talks of a ‘hard border’ came into play. In 2017 for example, Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard warned of “widespread distaste for any notion of a hardened border” and, “civil disobedience” if such a border were put into place.
During the Brexit referendum, it was clear the majority of Northern Ireland wished to remain. This was made evident by a majority ‘remain’ vote of 55.8%, however, this was ultimately irrelevant as NI was forced out with the rest of the UK.
The NI Protocol was thus established during Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. This was done with the aim of not only avoiding a hard border but upholding the integrity of the EU’s single market for goods, without negatively impacting trade between NI and the UK or third-party trade agreements. Whilst this appears to be an impeccable solution to the uproar surrounding a hard border, it has been relentlessly criticised by unionist members of the country.
This is due to fear of such a trade agreement damaging NI’s economy but mainly based on unionist ideology and the future of the UK. The DUP’s election manifesto for example, described the Protocol as “an existential threat" to the future of Northern Ireland's place within the UK. This is mainly a result of the de facto customs border created in the Irish Sea.
Moreover, concerns were raised regarding the fact that the Protocol places NI subject to several different laws imposed upon the country by a “foreign entity” without input from an elected representative of NI. The community is thus calling for specific tests to be considered for any special Brexit arrangements, in other words, representatives are calling for fundamental changes to the Protocol.
Given the current cost of living crisis, it goes without saying that a functioning executive to guide the country is imperative to our society now more than ever.
Hence, the communities are at a standstill, with one side arguing for the importance of the NI Protocol to maintain peace within the country, and the other arguing its harmful effect on the integrity of the Union. The disagreement between leading parties in the North, namely Sinn Fein and the DUP, has had a detrimental effect on power-sharing in NI and thus, without compromise, the disagreement poses a great threat to our devolved democracy. The effects of this have already been made evident by The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland calling for fresh elections should the dispute not be resolved, and a power-sharing executive restored. This threat of fresh elections has proven ineffective with the DUP claiming that they are prepared to fight another election in December before they will “renew their mandate” on replacing the NI Protocol.
Given the current cost of living crisis, it goes without saying that a functioning executive to guide the country is imperative to our society now more than ever. Elected First Minister Michelle O’Neill has voiced these concerns, stating, “The Stormont executive needs to return to get money into people’s pockets during an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis.”
These concerns have been met by further calls from the DUP to scrap the Protocol claiming it is “worsening the cost-of-living crisis.”
Furthermore, it is beyond evident that a compromise between these parties is crucial to uphold the future of the North and its economy; however, the DUP are remaining firm on their stance that they will not compromise on the Protocol and will not nominate ministers to form an executive until their demands are met. Without an assembly in the North, the representatives elected by the people of Northern Ireland cannot legislate the people through these uncertain and unnerving times.
Michael Martin voiced the reality of this, stating, “I would say to the DUP that they should participate in the assembly, and they should contribute to the restoration of the executive because otherwise we are denying democracy, denying the mandate that the people of Northern Ireland have given to their elected representatives to form a parliament and to form the executive.”
This makes it beyond transparent that the NI Protocol has had a detrimental effect on both power-sharing and the stability of the North’s political climate. Despite this, as previously established, the importance of the Protocol is undeniable, and the fact that such an important aspect of post-Brexit peace within NI is the very reason the country’s democratic agents have come to a standstill is far from ideal.
It is certainly plausible to suggest that the DUP needs to widen its viewpoint on the Protocol, recognise its positive aspects and maybe come to a compromise among themselves on what it will take to lure them back into Stormont in order to restore our long sought-after democracy.