A return to power sharing in Northern Ireland?


Will Northern Ireland return to power sharing?

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By Maddie Shone

18 MAY SAW local elections in Northern Ireland after they were delayed by two weeks due to King Charles III’s coronation. The results saw Sinn Fein become the largest par-ty in local government, gaining 30.9 percent of the vote share. They also increased their share of councillors by 39, to 144. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) gained 23.9 percent of

the vote and 122 councillors, result-ing in no change compared to the 2019 elections. The overall turnout increased by two percent to 54.7. The smaller Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) gained 67 councillors and elected the youngest ever councillor in Northern Ireland, 18-year-old Lewis Boyle, who still had an A-level politics exam to sit after gaining the Ballyclare area. However, they lost their only two seats in Derry and Strabane. Both the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) lost at least 20 seats. Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote for local elections, which offers voters greater choice. This differs from the first-past-the-post system used for local elections in England and Wales. This system has been used in Northern Ireland because of the more divisive nature of their elections, between unionists and nationalists, that all seek to be represented in the power sharing government.

The election has sparked calls for power sharing to return to Northern Ireland. The vice president of Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neil, stated that the election is an opportunity for the suspen-sion to end, calling for the restoration of the NI Assembly which has been suspended since February 2022. The power sharing system was created in 1998 due to the Good Friday Agreement , ending years of violence due to the Troubles. It requires that members from the largest nation-alist and unionist party agree to work together in order to ensure that those in favour of the union and those who would prefer separation are represented. However, this system has been faced with struggles from the outset, having been suspended a number of times before. For 40 percent of its existence, the executive has been in a state of collapse. The DUP’s First Minister, Paul Givan, resigned in protest of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which manages trade after the Brexit deal, and was created to try and prevent a hard bor-der on the island. His resignation resulted in a suspension which has now lasted over a year. This suspension has led to com-plications during Covid, as executive ministers were unable to make major new decisions without the two minis-ters.Additionally, budget for the next three years cannot be approved.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by Boris Johnson, with NI remaining inside the EU’s single mar-ket for goods. This has been criticised for effectively creating a sea border, as products arriving to NIfrom Great Britain are now subject to more checks and controls. The DUP has opposed these checks as well as the continuing role of the Europe-an Court of Justice in Northern Ireland which they claim justifies this suspension. Concern over the political stability of Northern Ireland and the maintenance of peace has increased due to this suspension.

The Windsor Framework, pro- posed after four months of negotia-tions between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, pres-ident of the European Commission,

appears to be an attempt to resolve the dispute caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol. This agreement will scrap all trade restrictions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, allow new freedoms for medicines, chilled meats and pets moving over the Irish Sea as well as allow West-minster to set VAT rates on Northern Ireland. The most radical change is the UK’s ability to veto new EU laws applying to trade in Northern Ireland, which has been described as an emergency brake.

The DUP party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has welcomed the changes and progress, stating that it vindicates the party’s year-long boy-cott. Other political leaders, such as Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, and US President Joe Biden, have also approved of the Windsor Framework.

Last year, Sinn Fein won an overall majority in Stormont for the first time. This also marks the first time the nationalists have outpolled the unionists. The combination of the recent elections and Sunak’s Windsor Framework may finally see the end of the DUP’s boycott and see a return of power sharing. However, the issue of a post-Brexit Northern Ireland may still be unresolved as we have yet to see fully the impact of these new policies.