After 23 months of impasse, Northern Ireland has a government again.
Following months of negotiations, an agreement between the UK government and the Democratic Unionist Party, the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland assembly, and whose support is needed for a government to take office, was signed off by UK MPs on Thursday (1 February).
The DUP, the main pro-UK party in Northern Ireland, has now formally asked the speaker to appoint a first minister who will form a government with ministers from four political parties — the moderate nationalist SDLP has said it will not be part of the new administration.
This isn’t the first time that the Northern Ireland assembly and devolved government in Stormont has been locked out, but previous lockouts have been over policing and the decommissioning of weapons by paramilitary groups. This time, the 23 months that have passed since the Stormont government stood down ahead of assembly elections in May 2022, was because of the rules governing trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The return to government is being spun by all sides as a triumph.
The obvious win for Sinn Fein is that having topped the poll at last May’s elections they get a first minister, Michelle O’Neill, for the first time since the introduction of Northern Ireland assembly elections under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This brings a united Ireland closer, according to Sinn Fein.
The DUP, meanwhile, says that two newly-published laws mean that Northern Ireland’s status within the UK has been enshrined and the Brexit customs border in the Irish Sea removed.
Neither claim is wrong but, at the same time, not much has changed. This is an exercise in fine-tuning and political window-dressing.
Northern Ireland has been a political pawn in the Brexit process ever since Theresa May’s government decided that it would not stay in the EU single market. That means customs checks on all goods travelling from Northern Ireland to the Republic and, for more of the past seven years, confusion about how to handle goods travelling from the British mainland to Northern Ireland.
In substance, the Windsor Framework, which was signed off in February 2023 by prime minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, which governs trade remains basically unchanged.
EU officials have briefed this week that they are not concerned by the UK’s new proposals, a far cry from the fury and legal threats that followed the launch of Boris Johnson’s bill to override the Northern Ireland protocol in 2022.
The Windsor agreement included plans for ‘green’ and ‘red’ lanes that would end customs checks for goods staying in Northern Ireland, with full checks still required for goods travelling on to the Republic of Ireland.
The 76-page ‘Safeguarding the Union’ paper published by the London government this week talks of “replacing a narrow green lane concept with a broader UK internal market system and a new internal market guarantee to protect the historic trade flows within the UK’s internal market.”
The two new laws are an attempt to show the pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland that does not break the UK’s own Acts of Union, which says all parts of the UK must be treated equally in matter of trade, and the Northern Ireland Act by changing its constitutional status without a referendum.
“The measures will mean that there will be no checks when goods move within the UK internal market system save those conducted by UK authorities as part of a risk-based or intelligence-led approach to tackle criminality, abuse of the scheme, smuggling and disease risks,” it adds.
Another tweak is to establish a ministerial committee to oversee the so-called ‘Stormont brake’ which has been designed to give Northern Irish lawmakers a say in whether to accept future EU single market laws.
The UK has also promised to introduce “statutory requirements to consider the impact of new legislation on internal market trade” and to “provide full clarity on the operation of the Stormont Brake, to ensure it serves as the full and powerful safeguard in practice as it is set out to be in legislation.”
But none of these tweaks change the fundamentals that Northern Ireland is legally bound to accept single market laws now and in the future in order to retain access to the trading bloc.
That is reflected in the continued opposition to the settlement from the likes of DUP MP Sammy Wilson, and other hardline unionists.
“When the Northern Ireland assembly sits, ministers and assembly members will be expected by law to adhere to and implement laws which are made in Brussels, which they had no say over and no ability to amend, and no ability to stop,” Wilson told the Commons earlier this week.
“This is a result of this spineless, weak-kneed, Brexit-betraying government, refusing to take on the EU and its interference in Northern Ireland,” he added.
The Good Friday Agreement deliberately created a system where the largest unionist and nationalist parties would have to work together and that need for consensus makes the government in Belfast almost uniquely vulnerable to collapse.
Businesses in Northern Ireland have been victims of the confusion and bureaucracy caused by Brexit. But the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland suggests that these hurdles can be overcome.