Agreement Ends Unionist Boycott, Paves Way For Power Sharing
After an impasse that left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for nearly two years, the region’s largest unionist party has agreed to end its boycott and restore the mothballed power-sharing government.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) announced Monday it will return to the region’s five-party coalition government after reaching an agreement with the British government to address concerns over post-Brexit trade rules.
The breakthrough deal could see Northern Ireland’s assembly reconvene as early as Saturday, ending the political deadlock that has left the region of 1.9 million people with a caretaker government since the DUP walked out in February 2022 in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Trade Concerns Lead To Boycott
The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed to keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open after Brexit by effectively keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods. But unionists argued the pact weakened Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom by introducing trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Monday that under the new deal, the UK government has committed to “progress” legislation that will allow Northern Ireland lawmakers to vote on maintaining the post-Brexit trading arrangements. If lawmakers vote against them, the UK would then “take the necessary steps” to change the rules, he said.
Donaldson described the deal as the “basis to restore devolved government at Stormont,” referring to Northern Ireland’s parliament. “This is progress. There is more work to do. But the time for action from the UK government is now,” he said at a news conference.
Sinn Fein Set For First Minister Role
The return of power sharing would make Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill first minister of Northern Ireland’s compulsory coalition government. It’s a first for the Irish nationalist party and ushers in a new political dispensation, given the region’s historically delicate power balance between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists who seek unity with the neighboring Republic of Ireland.
O’Neill said the crisis was never about the protocol but “the refusal of the DUP to accept people’s democratic choices.” She reiterated her party’s commitment to make the institutions work and urged the DUP to “join with the rest of us in good faith and fairness.”
Under Northern Ireland’s unique system of government, power is shared between Republican and Unionist political factions to help maintain peace forged by the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that largely ended three decades of sectarian violence.
The Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed two years ago when the DUP withdrew its first minister in protest, leaving the executive unable to fully function. The UK government has faced mounting pressure to resolve the impasse before the 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s historic peace agreement in April.
What Comes Next
While some hailed Monday’s deal as a significant achievement after years of political paralysis, others warned key details have yet to be finalized and the proposals do not completely remove trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Critics from the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) accused DUP leader Donaldson of “all spin and no substance,” while Irish nationalist SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said there remained “huge questions about the detail.”
Nonetheless, the breakthrough represents tangible progress that is expected to pave the way for Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structures to be restored after the longest period of political inertia in the region’s history.
The priority will now be to fill the vacant ministerial posts. O’Neill is line to become first minister, while the DUP would nominate the deputy first minister. Gordon Lyons of the DUP and Conor Murphy of Sinn Féin are expected to return to their previous roles overseeing the economy and finance departments.
While many welcome the formal return of devolution, the coming weeks and months are likely to see continued wrangling over the complex details underpinning the freshly brokered deal. All eyes will be on lawmakers’ response should legislation enabling the region to vote on the protocol make its way through the UK parliament.
Ultimately, power sharing rests on mutual trust and good faith between Northern Ireland’s fractious political parties. Whether the restored executive proves sustainable will depend on their ability to reconcile lingering disagreements over Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.
Timeline Of Key Events
|UK formally leaves EU after years of complex negotiations on withdrawal agreement
|Post-Brexit trade deal sealed between UK and EU
|Northern Ireland Protocol comes into effect, keeping Northern Ireland aligned to some EU rules
|DUP withdraws Paul Givan as First Minister in protest over protocol
|Sinn Fein wins historic victory in Northern Ireland elections
|UK PM Liz Truss unveils bill to override parts of Northern Ireland Protocol, legislation stalls
|PM Rishi Sunak restart talks with EU to resolve trade dispute
|UK and EU announce new Windsor Framework deal to ease protocol concerns
|DUP says it will study details of Windsor Framework before deciding next steps
|Jan 30, 2024
|DUP agrees ‘New Deal’ with UK government, ending boycott of power sharing
|Position / Party
|Leader, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
|Hardline unionist, opposes NI protocol due to trade barriers with Britain
|Leader, Sinn Fein
|Irish nationalist, supports protocol believing it protects access to EU and stability
|UK Prime Minister
|Conservative leader, pledged to resolve Brexit tensions to restore NI government
|Ursula von der Leyen
|President, European Commission
|EU leader, wants to uphold protocol while easing unionist concerns on trade
|Leader, Social Democratic and Labour Party
|Irish nationalist, welcomes power sharing return but cautious on protocol details
|Leader, Traditional Unionist Voice
|Hardline unionist and Brexit supporter, accuses DUP of “selling out” over deal
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