The stalemate over the Brexit deal’s implications for the UK border in Ireland appears to be over.
Michelle O’Neill finally became First Minister on Saturday. She should have been in this post for more than two years, but the Democratic Unionist Party decided to withdraw from government to block this.
Where there was once an in-built Protestant loyalist majority, Sinn Féin is now the largest party in parliament and the senior partner in government.
The First Minister is now someone whose father was an IRA prisoner.
Many people, especially Ulster loyalists, thought that this would never happen. Many people thought that this should never happen, including a lot of Irish nationalists.
The perils of power for once anti-establishment parties should be obvious.
It’s tough to oppose the status quo once you’re an active part of it, even if you want to change it.
Sinn Féin has been a junior partner governing Northern Ireland for over twenty years. During this time, the Northern Irish government has not delivered for many of the region’s residents.
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement solidified compromise at the core of Northern Irish politics.
The agreement’s architecture rules out majority and minority rule, yet this architecture has helped preserve the status quo.
Yet, the old sectarian divide has not gone away. Northern Ireland is still a neglected place within the UK.
The compromise that ended the Troubles has helped maintain the division.
People are now talking as if a united Ireland is a likely prospect. The symbolic significance of Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister may have more than symbolic implications.
The Good Friday Agreement, when it was signed and ratified by referendum, made a border poll a theoretical possibility. This framework has not been tested yet, but it may be shortly.
A united Ireland would correct the historical injustice of partition. However, it would come with severe costs and challenges.
We know this judging by the difficulties Germany still has following reunification.
Any united Ireland will have to accommodate a significant, potentially unruly Protestant minority. A new Irish state would inherit the problems of Northern Ireland, not just the historical problems of a conservative Catholic republic.
Right-wingers wanted Brexit to revitalise British capitalism, restore sovereignty and empower the cultural majority.
Instead, the prospects for Irish unification may be greater than they have been for a century.
As long as there is a British border on the island of Ireland, there will likely be problems resulting from it. Most of Northern Ireland (55.8%) voted Remain in 2016, and whether there is a sea or land border is a major problem.
The Northern Ireland Protocol has been reformed to remove certain checks on goods as part of the deal. These checks were seen as a disaster for unionists because they created a sea border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proposed a £3.3 billion recovery package to secure the DUP’s support for the deal. Given Northern Ireland’s size, this package sounds like a lot, but it will barely match the damage done by austerity and Brexit.
The Northern Irish government will have to make pay-outs to end public sector industrial disputes. This is reminiscent of when Theresa May signed off on a £1.3 billion package to secure the DUP’s support for her government. That was 2017.
If history is anything to go by, the Stormont deadlock could return in a few years.
The British keep hoping Northern Ireland will disappear, but it never does. Our history is hard to shake off.
Brexit Never Ends
Sinn Féin has just three years to make real changes in government.
A Labour government in Westminster may be more helpful to Sinn Féin’s goals in terms of increased funding.
On the other hand, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have made fiscal discipline a key flank of Labour economic policy.
A Labour government will have to balance trying to keep Northern Ireland ‘quiet’ and its fiscal rules.
Labour may pursue a cautious realignment with EU rules to reduce the ‘friction’ around trade.
This would help ease the border problem for Northern Ireland.
But it’s hard to see Labour taking the UK back into the customs union or single market without serious political backlash.
The lesson of the Northern Ireland Protocol is that Brexit never ends.
Before the Brexit vote, the DUP had 38 seats in Stormont, and Sinn Féin had 28 seats. The DUP lost ten seats in 2017 and three more seats in 2022, whereas Sinn Féin’s vote remained more or less steady – losing just one seat in that period.
Although Sinn Féin has seen its vote share grow in 2017 and 2022, it’s not just the former political wing of the Provisional IRA that has gained.
Jim Allister of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice has increased his party’s vote share.
Meanwhile, the nonsectarian liberal Alliance Party has expanded its share of the electorate and now has 17 seats. The Alliance is the Ulster equivalent of the Liberal Democrats, with a pro-European middle-class base.
The unionist parties still hold 34 seats in the Northern Irish Assembly, while the republican parties have just 31 seats.
This is a decline from 55 unionists and 40 republicans in the assembly in 2016.
Interestingly, the increase in voter turnout following the Brexit vote has fragmented the unionist bloc in the Northern Ireland Assembly and boosted the Alliance.
A combination of Brexit and demographic change may eventually tip the balance in favour of Irish unification.
DUP leaders clearly hope that this deal will give them more time to secure the province’s place within the union.
Naturally, hard-line unionists see the new power-sharing deal as a great betrayal. Jeffrey Donaldson or his party may pay a heavy price for this at the ballot box.
Just as the DUP once usurped the Ulster Unionist Party following the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP may now face its decline after this deal.
We may soon discover what happens when the centre cannot hold. Its collapse is inevitable.
Photograph courtesy of Sinn Féin. Published under a Creative Commons license.