Unexpected Elections in Northern Ireland in the Shadow of Brexit (2/10)     Print
Friday, 10 February 2017

By Konstantin Veit, Washington, DC

United Kingdom’s smallest constituent unit, Northern Ireland, has scheduled Legislative Assembly elections for March 2. How did that come about?

For a decade, the devolved government of Northern Ireland was formed by the nationalist Sinn Féin party and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The country’s snap elections follow the resignation of then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) in early January.

Under the joint protocols of the power-sharing agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP the resignation of the first minster of one party requires the resignation of the other, DUP first minister Arlene Foster, because neither first minister can hold office without a co-equal deputy first minister.

After McGuiness’ resignation, Sinn Féin had seven days to nominate a new deputy first minister. However, the party refused to do so and thus brought about snap elections. James Brokenshire, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, subsequently followed the relevant legislation and called snap elections for March 2.

The new Sinn Féin party leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, now faces the challenge to repair relations with the DUP. Following the March 2 election, negotiations on the terms of power-sharing will take place. Some Northern Irish MP’s are skeptical about the chances to restore power-sharing even after an election; however, DUP leader Arlene Foster recently expressed her willingness to work together with Sinn Féin, if the parties remain the two largest after the election.

According to an opinion poll published on January 30, the DUP which was the strongest party in the 2016 election is supported by 25.9 per cent-- a very small lead over Sinn Féin (25.9). Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionist Party gets 13.9 per cent, the pro-Irish Social Democratic and Labor Party follows with 12.36 percent. The liberal pro-European Alliance Party gets 8.9 per cent.

Regarding the Brexit debate, Sinn Féin has pleaded for Northern Ireland to be given special designated status within the European Union when Britain leaves, referencing the majority vote in Northern Ireland against Brexit. The DUP, however, backs London’s position to make a clean break from the EU.

Brexit raises special and knotty issues, since it entails the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with disturbing effects on trade, tourism and cross-border workers. Furthermore, the Good Friday peace agreement, which lays the foundation for the Northern Irish government, was specifically designed for both Ireland and the UK being EU members. Common membership in the EU seems to have helped to stabilize lasting peace in the old battle between Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists. Polls about UK’s EU membership show a new rift opening between nationalists with over 90% in favor of EU membership, whereas only 24% of the unionist faction supports membership.

The Telegraph said even before the Brexit referendum that the vote might “exacerbate tensions, fuel demands for a border poll on Irish unification and challenge the durability of the peace process” in Northern Ireland. Some Sinn Féin heads, such as party president Gerry Adams, consider Brexit against the will of the Northern Irish majority and a new chance to push for a united Ireland. Adams recently cautioned that “taking the North out of the EU […] will destroy the Good Friday Agreement.” New party leader O’Neill said, "The British government is clearly on a collision course with the EU in which our economy and peace agreements are regarded as collateral damage.”

Konstantin Veit is an editorial assistant at the European Institute