Northern Ireland Faces Fresh Election to Break Brexit Stalemate

  • In World
  • 2022-10-27 14:00:39Z
  • By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Northern Ireland is set for a second election this year after the biggest unionist party again prevented the region's government from forming, amid a row over post-Brexit trade rules that has major implications for the UK.

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The Democratic Unionist Party stopped the election of an Assembly Speaker and prevented the election of an Executive for a fourth time Thursday, after a last-ditch attempt by other parties to appoint one ahead of a midnight deadline.

The UK's Northern Ireland Secretary Christopher Heaton-Harris has said an election would be called if the region's power-sharing government is not restored in time, with Dec. 15 seen as a likely date.

It's the latest development in a long-running political impasse in Northern Ireland, after the Brexit deal signed between the UK and European Union exacerbated tensions in the region. The decision to keep Northern Ireland in the bloc's single market -- which both sides agreed was necessary to avoid a border on the island of Ireland -- angered unionists who say it undermines the region's trade and political ties to the rest of mainland Britain.

The DUP has refused to participate in the region's government since February having made their involvement conditional on the UK scrapping that part of the Brexit deal, which is known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Political Headache

It presents a significant political headache for the UK government in London, which has re-started negotiations with the EU on trying to fix the protocol for the first time in eight months and had hoped to use the prospect of a deal to persuade the DUP to re-form the government.

There's also potential for diplomatic tensions if an election does not result in the restoration of a power-sharing regional government. Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said this week Northern Ireland should not return to direct rule from the UK as has been the case in the past, but rather a new form of power-sharing between Dublin and London could take effect, he said.

But the DUP is unlikely to accept such an outcome.

The situation has been further complicated by the recent shifting of the political ground in Northern Ireland.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended decades of sectarian conflict in the region, the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minster -- usually one unionist and one nationalist -- are equal and one cannot be in place without the other.

Digging In

The role of First Minister has typically been held by a unionist party leader. But in the last election in May, nationalists Sinn Fein become the region's biggest party and nominated Michelle O'Neill to the job. Ever since, the DUP has refused to take part and there is little sign of any softening of their position.

"There is no doubt that having an election at this time won't change anything in terms of the issues and the challenges that we face in Northern Ireland," DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Thursday in Belfast.

If the impasse is not resolved by midnight -- 24 weeks after the May election -- caretaker ministers will be removed from office and the Northern Ireland assembly, which has only sat for special recalls since the election -- will also be dissolved. Heaton-Harris must call an assembly election within 12 weeks.

The political vacuum comes as people in Northern Ireland grapple with a cost-of-living crisis, with no regional government in place to help fix it.

In a survey published by Queen's University Belfast and Lucid Talk on Thursday, only 30% of people agreed with the DUP's position, that the executive should not be established until the Northern Ireland protocol is scrapped.

(Updates with political context from seventh paragraph)

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