So, What Just Happened In Northern Ireland And Why Does It Matter?

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson (Photo: Charles McQuillan via Getty Images)
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson (Photo: Charles McQuillan via Getty Images)

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson (Photo: Charles McQuillan via Getty Images)

The devolved government in Northern Ireland is still deadlocked, hours before the deadline for a new election.

The Northern Ireland electorate last went to the ballot box six months ago, but the coalition of parties elected could not decide who to appoint to various posts, resulting in the stalemate still rolling on today.

Unless a decision is made, and soon, Westminster is going to have to wade in.

Here’s what you need to know.

How does the Northern Ireland Assembly work?

The executive is made up of politicians from the parties elected with the most seats, but it’s meant to ensure both unionists and nationalists work together.

The May election for the Assembly, also known as Stormont, caused widespread surprise because – for the first time since it was created – the assembly had more nationalist seats through Sinn Fein than through unionist parties.

Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist party while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the largest unionist party. The DUP came to the forefront of Westminster politics when former prime minister Theresa May needed the party to prop up her minority government after her 2017 election, but it has been sidelined ever since the Tories’ landslide victory in 2019.

Sinn Fein took 27 seats in the Assembly in May, compared to 25 for the DUP, shifting the power dynamic in the nationalists’ favour.

The DUP secured 25 seats this year in the Northern Ireland Assembly, making it the second largest party (Photo: PA)
The DUP secured 25 seats this year in the Northern Ireland Assembly, making it the second largest party (Photo: PA)

The DUP secured 25 seats this year in the Northern Ireland Assembly, making it the second largest party (Photo: PA)

Why is there a problem?

The DUP has been preventing the executive for sitting for months.

It is pushing back against the Northern Ireland Protocol, one part of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. The party says this clause undermines NI’s constitutional position, separating it from the rest of the UK.

It has therefore refused to nominate ministers to the executive, principally the roles of speaker and deputy speaker.

Without these figures, the assembly cannot proceed to do any other business – including appointing an executive in the first place.

Ever since the DUP withdrew from the executive in February, ministers have only had limited powers.

On Thursday, the DUP’s leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We were given a clear mandate in the Assembly elections, and we would not nominate ministers to an executive until decisive action is taken on the protocol to remove the barriers to trade within our own country and to restore our place within the United Kingdom internal market.”

He continued: “That remains our position and so today we will not be supporting the nomination of ministers to the executive.”

He also said the unionists would not accept a joint authority arrangement between Dublin and London, in place of direct rule from London which is the de facto arrangement for whenever the executive does not sit.

The DUP believe joint authority would be “an abandonment of the Good Friday Agreement”, the deal struck to reduce tensions between unionists and nationalists in 1998. It was meant to ensure power-sharing in the devolved government between the two sides.

But Sinn Fein is not just only the largest party. It also has more support from other parties in favour of the protocol. In total, 53 elected members of the Assembly back the protocol, while only 37 (including the DUP) do not.

However, unless the entire government is restored soon, the Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris says he will override the devolved parliament and call an election.

What do other parties say?

Most parties are blaming the DUP.

Sinn Fein’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill would be entitled to be first minister in any executive, as the leader of the largest party. She accused the DUP’s leader of a “failure of leadership”, and said unless immediate action is taken, a “joint approach” from London and Dublin was needed.

Assembly members have been meeting at Stormont to try to resolve the issue, but the DUP said it was a “flawed and failed attempt” to get the power-sharing dynamic up and running again.

And attempts to install either the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone or Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt as speaker failed.

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

In 2019, no-one could agree what to do with Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

It is the only part of the UK with an EU border as it neighbours the Republic of Ireland.

The EU has strict trade rules and, because the UK has to be treated as a non-EU country after Brexit, any goods coming to and from it need to be checks.

Both sides also had to consider the 1998 Good Friday agreement, avoiding putting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Then prime minister Boris Johnson at the time proposed the protocol, where there would be a trade border down the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland would continue following the EU’s trade rules, but goods coming from Britain and entering Northern Ireland have to be thoroughly checked.

What happens next?

There’s no indication yet that any agreement will be reached before Friday’s midnight deadline (24 weeks since May’s election).

Heaton-Harris will then have to call for an assembly election in the next 12 weeks, likely resulting in a poll on December 15.

If this happens, senior civil servants will take over in a “caretaker” capacity, and the assembly will be dissolved.

However, there are fears this could only exacerbate the situation especially as very little has changed in the last few months – why would politicians change their stance to compromise now?

And, if there is a low turnout, the validity of the result could be scrutinised too.

The DUP has said it has no plans to stop the deadlock.

Meanwhile, other politicians from smaller parties – such as the Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party – warned that life in Northern Ireland was worsening without a devolved government.

Alliance’s Naomi Long said public services are “on their knees” or “teetering on the brink”, while SDLP assembly member Matthew O’Toole said he was “ashamed of this place”, especially as the cost of living crisis continued to bite.

Technical talks on how to fix the protocol are expected to roll on even if there are new elections.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly and the European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic were due to discuss the protocol on Thursday.

The government has promised to secure changes to the protocol, either through a compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation which would let Downing Street scrap arrangements without the approval of Brussels.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.