Political society

The stakes of the spring elections in Northern Ireland – Democracy and society

Early on May 5 this year, Northern Irish people will go to the polls to elect members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They hope that this spring election will bear more fruit than the previous one. Members of the Legislative Assembly (MPs) did not sit in 2017 due to fallout from a public spending scandal. The mistrust and distance between the two communities’ dominant parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, only deepened in the face of the Brexit drama, much of which centered on the issue that divides most deeply.

Stormont remained empty until January 2020, when the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to return to duty under the terms of the New decade, new approach. The deal included just enough promise to please everyone – an Irish Language Bill for Nationalists (which was never brought), “unfettered access” to the UK for NI companies to Protocol-wary trade unionists and a commitment to new legislation intended to prevent such government stagnation in the future.

Promises kept

MPs took their seats and, despite the Covid-19 pandemic hitting within weeks, the Assembly and the executive functioned reasonably well. However, the end of his tenure sadly mirrored that of his beginning. After threatening to do so for months, the The DUP removed the Prime Minister from his post in February to protest against the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, triggering the effective defenestration of the devolved institutions.

Yet the Assembly refused to fall. Indeed, in the absence of a fully functioning government, the legislature found an energy and determination never seen before. the number, scope and ambition of bills he considered quite extraordinary. Bills on Climate Change, Integrated Education, Protection from Harassment, Autism (the most comprehensive disability legislation in the UK) and Paid Leave for Victims of Domestic Violence were among the bills. 26 to be adopted during the last two months of his mandate. .

For a trade unionist to hold the post of Deputy Prime Minister would be the greatest sign yet of “parity of esteem” for the two main traditions and therefore of commitment to the 1998 Agreement.

The last sitting day of the Assembly (March 24) saw the passage of no less than five bills. In a short video posted on social media, Green Party Leader Clare Bailey walks out of the Assembly Hall after her Safe Access to Abortion Advice Bill was passed and runs in joy to celebrate a group of young people who applaud him. Their joyful cries echo in the great marble hall. The intoxication of democracy! On the same day, other MPs from across the political spectrum took to social media to share their joy at the passage of bills and the hope for change.

Their joy was partly so exuberant because so many Northern Irish people have waited so long for laws like these bills – passed by locally elected representatives in response to local needs. But it is also poignant because of the dark shadow of doubt that hangs over the future of the Assembly.

A matter of future peace

When the new MPs meet in Stormont in May, the party that wins the most seats will nominate the premier. Barring an electoral earthquake, it will be either Sinn Féin or the DUP. Current poll indicates that it is probably Sinn Féin. Although the post is equal in status to that of deputy prime minister, the DUP refused to say that it even accepted in principle that it could enter power-sharing under such conditions.

This is entirely for symbolism rather than practicality – the office is for all intents and purposes a common office. But symbolism is important in a place where place names or flowers or flags can rally or offend in equal measure. For a trade unionist to hold the post of Deputy Prime Minister would be the greatest sign yet of “parity of esteem” for the two main traditions and therefore of commitment to the 1998 Agreement, which remains to this day the best hope for a shared and peaceful future. But it would also be a decision that would require trust in Sinn Féin, in the lawand in the two governments – all of which are already thin worn. If the DUP wins the most seats and manages to appoint the prime minister, then attention turns outward. They have clarified that they will not fit into the power-sharing without modification of the Protocol. As such, it will be strongly implied that the future of the NI Assembly (and perhaps the Good Friday Agreement itself) hinges on what Brussels does next.

The need for European flexibility

In such circumstances, the EU might be wise to remember that it will always have to allow some “extension” to allow the protocol to work in that place, misplaced because it is ‘Between’ the EU single market and the UK as a third country. the flexibility shown so far by the EU is welcome and necessary.

The means to deal with real and compounded crises through a functioning elected regional government may well be thwarted by political crises of tokenism and status.

It would also be wise to try to “dedramatize” one more time. The majority of people in Northern Ireland do not see it as a “threat” to the same degree as the health service crisisthe cost of living crisisor fuel crisis. But, even if they consider it largely necessary, the majority have real concerns its impact, particularly on political stability.

The means to deal with these real and escalating crises through a functioning elected regional government may well be thwarted by the political crises of tokenism and status. The EU cannot solve such political problems, but it has the power to make them worse or better.

For the EU, showing flexibility on the implementation of the protocol does not mean conceding to the British government or the DUP the intransigence it has rescued. Rather, it would be a timely act of generosity: letting enough light shine on Northern Ireland this spring to let the good things grow.