Northern Ireland looks set for an assembly election within the next three months after politicians failed to restore their devolved government. Westminster had given them a deadline to restore the government, but no such action has taken place.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, is now obliged to call an election within the next 12 weeks as per government protocol.
Heaton-Harris has pledged to set a date for the election on Friday with the most likely date being 15th December. This means Northern Ireland will have a new devolved government in time for Christmas.
The election will be a culmination of a political crisis in Northern Ireland which has seen the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refuse to power-share since losing its status as the largest party in Northern Ireland to Sinn Fein in May.
This refusal by the DUP to power-share has a lot to do with their stance against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
This protocol is a trading arrangement, which was negotiated by the UK government during Brexit talks. It allows goods to be transported across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland without the need for checks. This is despite Northern Ireland being part of the UK (and therefore not in the EU) and the Republic of Ireland still being part of the EU.
Instead of checking imported goods at the Irish border, this protocol states that inspections and document checks are to take place between Great Britain and Northern Ireland at Northern Irish ports. It also states that Northern Ireland needs to abide by EU rules on product standards.
The DUP are enraged by this protocol because they believe it undermines Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom. They have stated that they will not return to power-sharing until action is taken to remove the economic barriers on trade (that are currently in place thanks to the protocol) between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
With DUP refusing to play ball, Northern Ireland’s devolved government has been nonexistent for some time now. As a result, the UK government set a deadline of Friday 28th October for the DUP to agree to return to government.
Last night, politicians failed in a last-minute effort to restore the government in crunch talks held at Stormont. Sinn Fein, which won the largest number of seats in May’s assembly election, called for for the DUP to end its protest but ultimately no agreement was struck.
The new Prime Minister, Rish Sunak, has urged the DUP to return to Stormont to try and reach an agreement. A spokesperson for Sunak said:
“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a fully functioning and locally-elected executive which can respond to the issues facing the communities there.”
While an election is now necessary, it is unclear as to how one will resolve the issues at hand. Regardless of the result, many politicians believe that the DUP will continue their protest against the protocol meaning the situation will remain exactly the same post-December.
As a result, Northern Ireland faces a long period of uncertainty and negotiations until the law is changed or the DUP change its mind.
DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has said that not enough progress has been made to do ate to alleviate his party’s concerns. On Friday morning, he said:
“Nothing has moved forward in solving the protocol. We’ve had three prime ministers, we’ve had the government changed often and we haven’t seen the progress that is needed.
We need a further period now to sort this out, and get a solution on the protocol that will see the institutions restored immediately.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has said that the DUP have left Northern Ireland “at the mercy of a heartless and dysfunctional Tory government.”
The political unrest in Northern Ireland relating to Brexit trade routes doesn’t appear like it is going to be resolved any time soon. While an assembly election is all good and well, the result is unlikely to make a difference to the DUP’s stance. Sadly, this means that the impasse will drag on for a good while yet.