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Northern Ireland in crisis as top minister resigns over Brexit customs checks

The post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol that imposed customs checks has led to an existential crisis among unionists who favor remaining in the United Kingdom. The resignation of the unionist first minister is the latest act of political theater, with nationalist Sinn Féin in pole position for historic upcoming elections.

(CN) — Northern Ireland has been plunged into a fresh political crisis after unionist First Minister Paul Givan announced his resignation.

“Our institutions are being tested once again and the delicate balance created by the Belfast and St. Andrews Agreements has been impacted by the agreement made by the United Kingdom government and the European Union which created the Northern Ireland Protocol," said Givan, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, in his resignation speech on Thursday.

He added, “The consent principle is a cornerstone of the Belfast Agreement and it is my earnest desire that all sections of the community will soon be able to give that consent to the restoration of a fully functioning executive through a resolution to the issues that have regrettably brought us to this point.”

Under Northern Ireland’s unique power-sharing rules, the resignation of a first minister also forces the resignation of the nationalist deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O'Neill. This means the Northern Ireland executive is left without leadership at a crucial moment in renegotiations between the U.K. and EU over trade rules created in the territory to resolve the thorny issue of Brexit.

Leadership of the executive is unlikely be restored before fresh Assembly elections scheduled for May. Sinn Féin has argued that the elections should now be moved up to eliminate weeks of constrained and rudderless government.

“The DUP are pursuing a strategy that prioritizes their own selfish interests over that of people. The public rightly expect politicians to work together to meet their needs. It is clear the DUP only want democracy when it’s on their terms. Those days are gone and not coming back. We are about the future," O’Neill said, speaking to the press.

Givan's resignation came just hours after he attempted to unilaterally suspend customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Under the Northern Ireland Protocol agreement reached between the U.K. and EU, customs checks for some goods crossing the Irish sea are required to preserve the integrity of the EU's single market rules, while also preventing a so-called hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and Ireland, an EU member state.

A hard border would have undermined the Belfast Agreement that began the Northern Ireland peace process – an outcome that all parties are committed to preventing.

The protocol does contain provisions for the checks to be suspended – known as Article 16 – if “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist” are present. However, this provision is meant to initiate a process of negotiation between the relevant parties, rather than permit the unilateral suspension of checks.

The U.K. government has previously threatened to unilaterally suspend the checks and has retained the threat as a bargaining chip, but such a move would be explosive and has the potential to unravel the entirety of the Brexit agreement. It could also provoke a trade war between the U.K. and E.U. at a time when both are facing a spiraling cost of living crisis.

On Friday, Belfast’s High Court struck down Givan’s decision to suspend customs checks immediately. The checks had ultimately continued regardless of Givan’s instruction, as senior civil servants had refused to comply with the decision.

The post-Brexit customs arrangements are highly controversial in Northern Ireland for various reasons. For the unionist community, who favor remaining in the U.K., they represent an unnerving separation from Great Britain and closer integration towards the Irish Republic. They have also placed greater pressure on firms in Northern Ireland, who have struggled with the costs associated with increased bureaucracy. In addition, they break a key promise made by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who gave assurances that his government would not permit checks in the Irish sea.

The protocol has provoked a crisis for the governing DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest political party. Many unionists view party leaders as complicit in the arrangements, having propped up the Conservative government in Westminster that eventually accepted the measures. Since the protocol was implemented, the DUP has suffered two leadership changes, public divisions and a collapse in support, according to opinion polls, and the party has followed a volatile and oscillating political strategy.

As a result, the DUP is no longer seen as fighting to retain control of the executive, but rather to remain the primary representative of Northern Ireland’s unionist community. The party faces opposition on both ideological wings, from the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party and the more radical Traditional Unionist Voice, both of which have been highly critical of the DUP’s role in enabling the protocol.

Many therefore view Givan’s resignation as a political stunt, enabling the DUP to distance itself from potential failure to renegotiate the protocol in advance of the upcoming Assembly elections. Givan had given Johnson a deadline of Jan. 31 to make substantial progress in the talks, but on Friday he publicly revealed that the prime minister had told him there was only a “20 to 30% chance of agreement.”

Meanwhile, polling suggests that Sinn Féin is in a strong position to assume the role of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, a historic outcome which would swing the balance of power in the Assembly firmly in the direction of the nationalist community, who seek Irish unification.

Although the first minister and deputy first minister – who must come from different party designations – share equal executive power, the election of a nationalist Sinn Féin first minister is likely to have a profound psychological effect on both unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. Since partition in 1921, unionists have always possessed the greater political influence in the territory.

Northern Ireland’s post-war political history has been unstable, to put it mildly. Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin has previously collapsed on multiple occasions, with the territory last lacking governance between 2017 and 2020.

Despite the challenges now presented by Brexit, Northern Ireland’s unionist and nationalist communities have managed to move past seemingly intractable political divisions before, regardless of how uneasily such agreements have been reached.

The concern, however, is that a Northern Ireland with a Sinn Féin first minister and Assembly plurality, combined with growing economic separation from Great Britain, could provoke a perfect storm of unionist anxiety and resentment. While the British government and European leadership might want to focus on other priorities, the unresolved question of Northern Ireland’s status is likely to only become more pressing in the coming months and years.

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