Brexit may be about to claim another casualty: the devolved Northern Ireland government.
First results in the snap elections Thursday for the Northern Ireland Assembly suggest a surge in support for the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein Party whose long-term goal is to reunify the northern and southern parts of Ireland. Sinn Fein’s wins come partly at the expense of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the pro-UK party that leads the devolved Northern Ireland government created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Both parties won 28 percent of first preference votes cast, marking the first time Sinn Fein’s vote has matched the DUP’s (the latter was a thousand votes ahead in raw numbers). By contrast, more moderate parties from both communities, the UUP (UK unionist) and SDLP (Irish nationalist), scored a disappointing 13 and 12 percent respectively. They had hoped to capitalize on the recent breakup of the Sinn Fein-DUP devolved government but failed to make any headway.
The exact seat distribution for the 90 member Assembly will be determined in the next day or so, using the Single Transferable Vote system under which voters rank candidates in order of preference in multi-seat constituencies. The seat allocation should be broadly in line with the first preference vote shares. The turnout, at 65 percent, was up 10 percentage points on the 2016 Assembly elections.
Since the Brexit vote, relations between DUP and Sinn Fein, who have governed together for a decade have deteriorated sharply for diverse reasons. Firstly, the DUP has been openly accusing Sinn Fein of having a ‘radical republican agenda’ aimed at scrapping devolution and pushing for Irish reunification. Secondly, DUP leader Arlene Foster, the First Minister until the government dissolved in January, has become embroiled in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme scandal after it was revealed that her government has been defrauded hundreds of millions of pounds by businesses abusing the scheme.
Finally, Sinn Fein’s veteran leader inside Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, who was Deputy First Minister, stepped down both from the Sinn Fein and Northern Ireland Executive leadership posts due to ill health. McGuinness, an experienced and steady hand, had been credited with keeping the Executive ship afloat through the stormy waters it has faced over the years.
Relations have deteriorated to the point where analysts predict the DUP and Sinn Fein will be unable to form a government together within the three weeks required under the Good Friday Agreement. If they fail, direct rule from the UK government in Westminster will be restored. That scenario could end up being a holding position as the different sides contend with some much bigger forces that have been unleashed by Brexit.
The UK’s planned departure from the EU by March 2019 raises the prospect of a hard border — for goods and people — having to be erected between northern and southern Ireland. Since the so-called Troubles ended in the late 1990s, there has been free movement between the two sides. Both Ireland and the UK are EU member states, fully integrated into the EU single market. Ireland declined to join the EU’s Schengen passport-control-free area to maintain the common travel area between Ireland (both north and south) and the UK. The UK has always been keen to stay outside of Schengen. What will happen in the course of the Brexit talks is anyone’s guess. One thing is sure: there is little appetite on any side for introducing a hard border on the island of Ireland.
To recap, in last June’s Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voters opted to remain inside the EU by 56-44 percent. The two Irish nationalist parties were on the Remain side, while the unionists were split, with DUP for Brexit, while UUP was — tepidly — on the Remain side. Scotland, which has its own devolved government, voted Remain by a bigger margin, 62-38 percent. In 2014, Scotland voted by 55-45 percent to remain part of the UK in a referendum on full independence. Wales, whose devolved government was set up about the same time as those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, voted 52-48 percent for Brexit. England, which has no devolved government, voted for Brexit by a similar margin to Wales, although London voted 60-40 percent Remain.
This asymmetry in how the components comprising the UK voted on Brexit creates a lot headaches for UK Prime Minister Theresa May as she launches into the what will be a very rough two years of negotiations. The risk of the delicately constructed Northern Ireland peace settlement unravelling is a further element in the equation.
Brian Beary is former Washington correspondent for EuroPolitics and is contributing editor at European Affairs.