Increased proximity towards the pro-Irish, pro-Euro
On Thursday, May 5, around 874,000 voters (a 63.61% turnout) in Northern Ireland, the region of Ireland that is still part of the United Kingdom, were expected to elect its new regional government, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Shawn, 2022). The election is guided by complex rules to ensure a proportional representation of the population (Pogatchnik, May 6, 2022), as well as by regulations laid out by the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, which ended 39 years of conflict between the UK’s territory of Northern Ireland and the Irish republic (Proessl, May 7, 2022). This election is pivotal, as it will likely guide the answer to key questions on the future of European trade and a potential completion of Brexit.
Due to the history of conflict, which can still be felt in the binarity of Northern Irish society, and the anxiety caused by possible altercations between Ireland and Northern Ireland over the economy, British lawmakers have decided to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Protocol has determined that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the EU single market, which causes British goods to be subject to border control when entering the Northern Irish province (Pogatchnik, May 6, 2022). Thus this election was an essential one, as it was the time voters had the opportunity to express their opinion on the special economic status of Northern Ireland.
Aside from the election itself being pivotal for its electorate, for the UK, and for European trade, the results themselves are historical: For the first time since the foundation of Northern Ireland over a century ago, the pro-Irish, pro-European republican-catholic party of Sinn Féin (SF) (transl.: “We Ourselves”) led by Michelle O’Neill has won against the pro-British unionist-protestant Democratic Unionist Party led by Jeffrey Donaldson (Pogatchnik, May 6, 2022). The third biggest party this election was the Alliance Party, formed across both catholic and protestant camps with pro-European and pro-republican attitudes, mostly led by the wish of uniting the separated and polarised Northern Irish (Pogatchnik, May 6, 2022). Further information on the election outcome is illustrated in this graphic:
Source: Wikipedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2022_Northern_Ireland_Election_Map.svg), May 8, 2022
Overall, the win of the republic SF answers a key question around the special economic status of Northern Ireland: The people want the Northern Ireland Protocol guaranteeing access to the EU single market to the entire Irish island to stay in place.
However, the same protocol is a potential obstacle when it comes to the formation of a government in the Northern Irish Assembly (Pogatchnik, May 7, 2022). In accordance with the conditions laid out by the Good Friday Deal, the government needs to be consensually formed by the biggest parties from each confessional camp (Pogatchnik, May 7, 2022). This means the election-winning SF can install a first minister, and the second-ranked DUP is entitled to install a deputy minister. As of now, the unionist DUP is against coalescing with the republican SF in forming this government. This aversion is caused by the disagreement on the special economic status of Northern Ireland, the closeness it demonstrates towards the Irish Republic and the EU overall, and the resulting economic difficulties British manufactures experience when importing their goods into Northern Ireland. DUP’s leader Donaldson has threatened to use the cross-community consent rule to block the formation of a new government if the British government doesn’t take “[…] decisive action on the protocol. Words are not enough.” (Donaldson quoted in Pogatchnik, May 7, 2022).
There is much to watch out for in the aftermath of these elections – the reaction of the British cabinet regarding the threats uttered by the unionist Donaldson, whether DUP will nonetheless appoint a deputy minister and therefore agree with the fresh pro-Irish and pro-European wind on the island, and lastly, whether in the long run if the Northern Irish lawmakers will forward attempts of joining the northern and southern parts, possibly further integrating them into the EU. These speculations seem to be written in the stars of a clear June night sky.
Written by Ana Waschnewski, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
Pogatchnik, Shawn. 2022, May 7. Belfast results show unionists can’t win vote on Brexit
protocol. Politico Europe. https://www.politico.eu/article/belfast-results-show- unionists-cant-win-vote-on-brexit-protocol/
Pogatchnik, Shawn. 2022, May 6. Sinn Féin wins big in Belfast assembly election. Politico
Proessl, Christoph. 2022, May 7. Parlamentswahl in Nordirland: Sinn Fein erstmals stärkste
Kraft. Tagesschau. https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/europa/nordirland-regionalwahl-sinn-fein-105.html
The Electoral Office of Northern Ireland. Elections 2022: NI Assembly Election 5 May 2022.
2022 [cited May 9, 2022]. Available from https://www.eoni.org.uk/Elections/Election-results-and-statistics/Election-results-and-statistics-2003-onwards/Elections-2022.