After a two year deadlock, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has agreed to a deal to revive Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. The deal was struck late Monday between the U.K. government and the DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government since the collapse of power sharing in January 2017 amid a row over a botched green energy scheme. This led to years of talks between the U.K. and EU to renegotiate parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, a key part of the Brexit deal allowing free movement of goods across the Irish border by keeping Northern Ireland aligned to some EU rules.
The post-Brexit deal has proven controversial for unionists like the DUP, who say it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. by putting up barriers to trade with Britain. Earlier this year, the DUP collapsed the power-sharing administration in protest over the protocol, refusing to cooperate until their demands over the protocol were met.
The U.K. and EU finally unveiled a new Windsor Framework deal last week after months of negotiations between the EU and new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The deal keeps Northern Ireland in the U.K. customs union and VAT area, allows Stormont a say over EU rules that apply to Northern Ireland, and gives the Northern Ireland Assembly the power to block changes.
The DUP has now backed the Windsor deal, agreeing late Monday night to restore power sharing based on a “generous heads of agreement”.
Key points of the DUP-U.K. government deal include:
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that would empower U.K. ministers to unilaterally overrule parts of the protocol has been scrapped.
There will be no Irish language act imposed on Northern Ireland for at least 18 months.
Major reform of the petition of concern to prevent abuse by one party.
Greater transparency around operation of protocol.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party’s concerns over the protocol had been addressed, allowing power sharing based on respect and consensus to resume.
“We have taken the time to get an agreement that is broadly acceptable, that delivers what is required for the people of Northern Ireland,” he stated.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin welcomed confirmation of the DUP’s return to powersharing, calling it “an important step forward for the people of Northern Ireland”.
However, other parties have criticized concessions made to the DUP as undermining power-sharing principles that require cross-community inclusion, not domination by one party.
“Any deal which allows the DUP to cling on to their ‘Trumpian’ red lines has not moved Northern Ireland forward,” said Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin.
What happens next
With the DUP backing restored powersharing, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is expected to introduce legislation for an election on April 6. The Northern Ireland Assembly will then meet on March 9 to allow newly-elected MLAs to form an executive.
If parties fail to form an executive within 6 months, the U.K. government will call another election.
Experts caution that while the deal allows Stormont to reopen in the short-term, fundamental rifts over the protocol remain between unionists and nationalists that leave powersharing vulnerable.
Professor David Phinnemore, an expert in Irish politics, tweeted that the breadth of opposition raises doubts over the Executive’s durability:
“There are commitments the DUP has secured that nationalists and the Irish government will oppose. The contradictions and conflicts have not been resolved,” he stated.
Ongoing issues like implementing the cultural elements of the New Decade New Approach Deal also threaten future stability, warns academic and political commentator Dr Katy Hayward:
“There are still differences yet to be reconciled,” she told Sky News. “Negotiations didn’t make those problems disappear, they just parked them so they could get Stormont back up and running.”
|Backs deal and restoring power sharing
|Critical of concessions to DUP but wants Stormont restored
|Concerns over cultural elements but welcomes deal
|Unhappy with parts of deal but focused on getting Stormont running
The deal between the DUP and U.K government, coming alongside their new Windsor Framework agreement with the EU, finally breaks the political deadlock in Northern Ireland after years of tensions over Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
While reservations within both unionist and nationalist communities remain, the agreement paves the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly and power sharing Executive to reopen. However, fundamental splits mean the future stability of the institutions will faces ongoing challenges.
The upcoming election and attempts to reform the petition of concern could reshape the political landscape. But the divergence in unionist and nationalist views over the protocol remains the core obstacle to sustainable, long-term powersharing that serves all of Northern Ireland.
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