Northern Ireland has been without a government since February. The unionist DUP party refuses to form a coalition, out of dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As long as the Northern Ireland Protocol is not off the table, Northern Ireland will not have a government. That was the message of Jeffrey Donaldson late last week during a meeting with international media in London. For ten months, the Northern Irish have been without government, because Donaldson refuses to participate in a government coalition with his party DUP (Democratic Unionist Party).
“The protocol undermines the consensus in our divided country that was at the heart of The Good Friday Agreement,” he said. “The European Union has always said it wants to protect that agreement. Then she has to be more flexible.”
The problem is that with Brexit there should have been another ‘hard’ border between Ireland (EU member) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK and therefore no longer an EU territory). With customs gates, so to speak, but hardly anyone wanted that. The fear is that this would reignite the old tensions in Northern Ireland.
Violence between (predominantly Catholic) pro-Irish nationalists and (mostly Protestant) pro-British unionists claimed the lives of 3,500 people between the late 1960s and 1998. The Good Friday Agreement ended this conflict. It stipulated that unionists, such as Donaldson, and nationalists would henceforth always govern Northern Ireland together, through mandatory coalitions of the two largest parties on either side of the political and social divide.
There was no hard border after Brexit. The UK and the EU signed the Northern Ireland Protocol. The bottom line is that Northern Ireland, even though it is British territory, still remained part of the European single market. As a result, the border controls required by brexit now take place in the UK itself: at sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The EU was satisfied, but the unionists protested, because the protocol ensures that Northern Ireland was given an (economic) exemption position within the UK. Unionists want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the UK. The British wanted to renegotiate the protocol and to increase the pressure, the DUP paralyzed Northern Irish politics.
But the EU is not bending for the time being and so the political emergency in Northern Ireland continues to rise. The British government recently tried to force Donaldson and the DUP to form a Northern Ireland government coalition together with the nationalist Sinn Fein. The British minister for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, threatened to call a new election.
The DUP held his leg stiff. New elections have been announced, but a date has not yet been set. In principle, it may take until april – until the 25th anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement-before the Northern Irish actually go to the polls. However, the British government introduced legislation that cuts members of the Northern Ireland Parliament 27.5 percent on their salaries, until there is a functioning Northern Ireland government again.
The question is whether new elections will solve much. The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that unionists must by definition be part of the Northern Ireland coalition government. Not only the DUP, but all unionist parties are mordicus against the Northern Ireland Protocol. So the ball is in the EU, Donaldson constantly repeated during his meeting with the international press.
The British government in London has for some time, to the frustration of Brussels, planned to introduce a law that would allow certain agreements with the EU to be unilaterally cancelled. The new prime minister Rishi Sunak seems to attach more importance to good relations with the EU than his predecessor Liz Truss.
Nevertheless, Donaldson is pleased that Sunak’s government is also trying to “correct” the previously made British “mistake” in signing the protocol. The negative impact on Northern Ireland is huge.
“The EU should admit that goods crossing the Northern Ireland border represent a minuscule share of its total trade.”