Responses to the Northern Ireland Protocol have, predictably, fallen along unionist (anti-) versus nationalist (pro-) lines, exacerbating existing fault lines and precluding a coherent Executive response. There was little prospect for cross-community unity at Stormont this side of the May 2022 Assembly election, and in February the DUP withdrew its First Minister from the power-sharing Executive in protest against the Protocol. With the Deputy First Minister also losing her job automatically under the rules, the DUP’s move ended collective Executive government this side of the election, although other ministers remained in post on an individual basis.
The DUP spent half of 2021 engulfed in its own leadership shenanigans. Arlene Foster was ousted as leader in a coup, replaced by Edwin Poots, who lasted less than a month before quitting, with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson taking over. The party has been accused of being midwife to its own Protocol misfortunes. Having backed Brexit and invited Boris Johnson to tell the DUP conference in 2018 that no ‘British Conservative government could or should sign up’ to a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Johnson signed up to exactly that.
All three unionist parties in the Assembly — the DUP, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV, which has been polling well) — oppose the Protocol. The DUP and TUV are prepared to threaten the long-term viability of devolved power-sharing in opposing the Protocol, whilst the UUP does not back such a tactic.
On the nationalist side, there is strong support from Sinn Féin and the SDLP for the Protocol, and similarly strong backing comes from Alliance, the only non-unionist and non-nationalist party within the executive. Alliance draws its support mainly from electors eschewing unionism or nationalism. For these parties, the Protocol remains the only viable means of ensuring a seamless border on the island of Ireland. Nationalist parties endorsed the EU’s proposals for substantial reductions in the volume of checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
A combination of Protocol fallout and internal leadership chaos now threatens the status of the Democratic Unionist Party which, since 2003, has been the most popular party in Northern Ireland. A University of Liverpool study found that 62% of the Northern Ireland electorate believed the DUP had handled issues around the Protocol badly. The most recent polling suggests Sinn Féin will win the most Assembly seats in the May 2022 Assembly election and probably take the First Ministership from the DUP. Formally, the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are equal. Nonetheless, such an outcome would represent a significant blow to unionists.
What challenges and opportunities do Northern Ireland’s parties face?
Although the Protocol is the latest catalyst, disaffection with Stormont has a longer genesis. The Executive and Assembly have been prone to collapse, having been suspended for 35% of the time since creation in 1999. The portents from the experience are not promising for the DUP. At the last General Election, the DUP and Sinn Féin suffered five and seven-point falls in vote shares respectively, each blamed for the Assembly hiatus between 2017 and 2020 that had contributed to a pre-pandemic NHS crisis. The electorate sees health, pandemic recovery, and education as bigger issues than the Protocol — which is seen as the most important by only nine per cent of the public in Northern Ireland.
It is now highly unlikely the DUP will return post-election whether to take the First Ministership or, more likely, the Deputy First Ministership. Anxious to avoid another meltdown of the institutions, the UK Government was already in the process of legislating at Westminster to extend the period by which nominations for First and Deputy First Minister can be made after an Assembly election from 6 to 24 weeks. After the elections in May, protracted prevarication over Executive formation is likely.
The ‘New Decade New Approach’ deal that restored devolution in January 2020 did facilitate the creation of an official opposition. However, none of the main parties seems interested, preferring to take seats in the governing coalition. The fear of parties is that entering opposition will diminish their relevance.
The Assembly will be able to vote on whether to continue the Protocol in 2024. A cross-community vote in support of it would mean the deal’s extension by eight years, but such extensive consent seems inconceivable given unionist hostility. A more likely scenario is a simple majority vote in favour, which would extend the arrangement for a minimum of four years. Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Green Party are all supportive.
Sinn Féin has called for citizens’ assemblies to discuss what a future united Ireland would look like and demands a border poll. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the calling of a poll lies within the gift of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland — who is obliged to call one if it appears there is a majority for constitutional change.
The polls have tended to coalesce around half of the electorate wanting Northern Ireland to remain in the UK but vary considerably in reported levels of support for a united Ireland, from 26% in the latest (2020) Northern Ireland Life and Times survey to 42% in the latest LucidTalk iteration. A poll of post-Brexit polls puts backing for a united Ireland at 38%. The challenge for the unionist parties in Northern Ireland might be acceptance of a modified Protocol that falls some way short of outright abolition.
The challenge for nationalist parties in Northern Ireland is selling a united Ireland within the EU to the large section (40%) of the population who identify as neither unionist, nor nationalist, and may be constitutional agnostics. Given there is very little support for direct rule from Westminster and insufficient backing for Irish unity, the political institutions may survive by default.
By Jon Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool.