(CN) — Northern Ireland looks to be heading for a new round of elections, just seven months after voters in the United Kingdom territory last went to the polls.
A final deadline for government formation was passed early on Friday morning, with no resolution in sight over the issue of post-Brexit customs checks. The main organ of British unionism, the Democratic Unionist Party, has refused to serve in Northern Ireland’s peacetime political institutions unless the customs checks, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, are scrapped. Northern Ireland’s unique power sharing rules mean that without the DUP’s participation, the government and legislature cannot function.
The DUP is opposed to the protocol as it creates a customs border down the Irish Sea, aligning Northern Ireland with the Irish regulatory sphere rather than the British one.
Under U.K. legislation, fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly must be called if political parties have still not formed a government after 24 weeks. However, the elections are unwanted on all sides and are not expected to produce a breakthrough in the stalemate.
Resolving the deadlock is a matter for negotiations between the British government and European Union. New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is thought to be far less willing to unilaterally scrap the protocol than his predecessors, and is instead keen to avoid tension with the EU that could exacerbate economic instability in the U.K.
Negotiations on reforming the protocol are ongoing, but even then it is unclear that such reforms can satisfy the demands of the DUP, who insist on its abolition.
An extraordinary session of the Northern Ireland Assembly on Thursday, called as a last ditch attempt to restore power sharing, exposed the stark divisions between the territory’s political parties.
In universally angry exchanges, party leaders accused each other of disrespecting their respective mandates and seeking to undermine the territory’s peacetime political institutions.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, who was set to become the first nationalist leader of Northern Ireland after her party’s historic election win in May, pinned the blame for the crisis solely on the DUP.
“The DUP are in a perpetual standoff with the public, the majority of whom they do not speak for or represent,” she said, going on to describe the party’s blocking of power sharing as “futile, reckless, short-sighted and senseless.”
But the DUP’s Paul Givan slammed opposing parties, accusing them of double standards in their calls to build consensus. He said suggestions that his party should compromise had “no credibility coming from the parties which demanded a border within the United Kingdom.”
The Alliance Party’s Naomi Long angrily attacked Givan and his party, saying they were prioritizing party interests over the needs of Northern Ireland’s people. In a similar vein, the Social Democratic Labour Party’s Matthew O’Toole told the chamber that he was “ashamed of this place, because unlike other people in this chamber, I am capable of shame.”
“People here are not just losing faith in democracy, but losing interest in it,” he continued.
Unionism’s other main political force, the Ulster Unionist Party, has distanced itself from the DUP’s blocking of government formation. Leader Doug Beattie said “Fixing these problems shouldn’t be done at the expense of having stable government,” warning that “the anger that is being shown on this floor today is absolutely nothing compared to the anger that is out on the streets and the towns and the villages of Northern Ireland.”
“I’m really concerned that people are now going out of their way to unpick the Belfast Agreement,” he added, referring to the peace deal signed back in 1998 which ended conflict between Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist communities.
Concern that Northern Ireland’s peacetime political institutions are irreversibly crumbling appears to be spreading.
A letter sent to unionist leaders by former loyalist paramilitaries on Friday suggest that support for the ceasefire among hardline unionists might be weakening. The letter warned of “dire consequences” if the protocol is not abandoned, and set out three demands that it stated were “required in order to preserve the peace and political stability that we have all come to enjoy post-1998.” The threats of violence were roundly condemned by politicians on all sides.
Unionists are particularly opposed to Sinn Féin’s emerging position that "direct rule" from London must not be reinstated if government formation proves ultimately impossible. Instead, they are demanding that Northern Ireland’s administration should be transferred to a “joint partnership” of the British and Irish governments until the standoff can be resolved. Handing political authority to Dublin is a non-starter among most unionists, deepening divisions over a way out of the crisis.
On only one issue is there consensus: that a new round of elections is not going to help. The results are predicted to be broadly the same as in May, and the DUP has pledged to continue to block governance whatever the result. The estimated cost of 6.5 million pounds ($7.53 million) to administer elections, amid a deepening cost-of-living crisis, is also widely viewed as unacceptable.
The collapse of governance means that critical decisions on funding and resources for everyday issues in Northern Ireland cannot be made. Amid rising prices, an energy crisis and crumbling public services, the political vacuum is generating social problems, pushing people further into poverty and creating obstacles to accessing health care. Widespread disillusionment is also weakening consent for Northern Ireland’s political arrangements.
The British government now has a statutory obligation to hold an election within 12 weeks, but Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris has so far refused to set a date. The U.K. government’s position in the crisis has been disrupted by ongoing political instability at Westminster, which has generated further uncertainty as Friday’s deadline loomed.
It is expected that the new elections will take place in mid-December.
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