By Dr Niamh Gallagher, co-convener of the Cambridge seminar on the future of the island of Ireland

Northern Ireland’s political institutions are once again in trouble. In what seems like a semi-permanent state of disarray, the Northern Ireland Executive was plunged back into crisis following the resignation of the DUP First Minister Paul Givan on 3 February, automatically triggering the resignation of the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin.

To explain the sequence of events that led the DUP to attempt to bring down the Stormont house of cards requires a brief trip down memory lane. A handful of stopping points include the DUP’s support for a hard-line Brexit in 2016, the party’s Confidence and Supply relationship with the Conservatives (2017– 2019), the landslide Conservative Party victory under Boris Johnson in 2019, the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement which created the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (commonly known as ‘the Northern Ireland Protocol’ or ‘Protocol’) in late 2020, polling data that consistently indicates a significant loss of confidence in the DUP among Unionist voters, and the attempted resurrection of the DUP as the ultimate opponent of the Protocol. Only for emergency legislation passed by Westminster, the Assembly would have fallen. As it stands, Northern Ireland is currently without an Executive. The Stormont power-sharing system is now on life support until early May. But can it recover?

On 5 May, voters head to the polls to vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s 100-year history, a nationalist party – in this case, the republican Sinn Féin – looks likely to become the largest party. This prediction has illuminated some fundamental problems with the power-sharing arrangement which, while not perfect, has served the region since the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not one single self-declared Unionist party has publicly declared that it will support a Sinn Féin First Minister, should that party come first in the May elections. Whatever one’s views of Sinn Féin, or any political party for that matter, to not endorse the winner of the election does not inspire confidence in the system, even if this posturing is perhaps best understood as a campaigning tactic.

Secondly, it is possible that the centrist Alliance Party might be the second most popular party in these elections, but because of the ‘sectarian’ basis upon which the NI power-sharing arrangement was originally premised, the party, which doesn’t align with Orange-Green/Unionist-Nationalist designations, will not be able to occupy the Deputy First Minister position. This problem is widely recognised but will not be fixed before the May elections.

These immediate electoral questions are compounded by other factors, such as the continual delay in passing Irish Language Legislation in Northern Ireland, that has been promised since the 2006 St Andrew’s Day Agreement; the liberal use of the ‘Petition of Concern’ by all parties to object to legislation and policies (originally designed as a safety mechanism to ensure that one ‘community’ cannot be antagonised by another in a majority vote, it has in effect become a veto on any legislation a party doesn’t like. Here too the DUP emerge in a bad light, having evoked the petition 107 times between 2007–16, most recently in November 2020 to block the extension of Covid-19 restrictions for a further 14 days); and the truism facing parties of all stripes that the electorate in Northern Ireland can no longer be described exclusively in Orange or Green terms and are concerned with other issues including health, the economy, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and the environment, yet the Agreement gave primacy to political arrangements based on constitutional allegiances.

Alternatives to the current arrangements are not immediately obvious. The question of Irish unification has been an idea in vogue for some time. Serious work is being done regarding the prospects and mechanics of a border poll or, as Jim O’Callaghan and others have spoken about at the Cambridge seminar on the Future of the Island of Ireland, what a new constitutional settlement might look like. However, the campaign for the hearts and minds of the people to agree to a new settlement – on both sides of the border – is still in its infancy. Reworking the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement also seems out of the question without the express consent of all political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as the governments in Ireland and the UK – a situation made even tougher due to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the importance of the Agreement in the British-EU negotiations. And Direct Rule from Westminster is hardly going to go down well as a long-term answer.

Most likely, Stormont will continue to limp on until May and possibly thereafter depending on the outcome. Whoever ends up taking the top two spots in the elections will have a difficult job ahead of them in making power-sharing workable – and perhaps more importantly, credible.

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