The Northern Ireland Assembly is again in a political gridlock, being prevented from forming an Executive that would allow Ministers to take up their positions as decision-makers. This time, it is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refusing to take their seats to get the Assembly up and running.

NIP, DUP & Nationalism

In February 2022, the DUP withdrew from the Assembly over their concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). They remain ideologically opposed to the Protocol believing that it enforces a change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional standing within the UK. Their aim is to force the UK Government to remove the Protocol and give Northern Ireland the same trading relationship with the EU as the rest of the UK. 

Notably, since the government collapse, the May 2022 elections saw Sinn Fein (a Nationalist party) take the largest share of the votes, removing the DUP from its status as the largest party in the region. This is significant because if the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive were restored, Northern Ireland would have a Nationalist First Minister for the first time in its history. This leaves the DUP holding the post of Deputy First Minister, should they return to Stormont. Despite the differences in title, the positions exercise equal authority over the running of the Executive. However, these differences do hold social and political sway among the electorate. 

Unique Power-Sharing Model

The devolved government in Northern Ireland operates using the model of consociationalism, which requires the sharing of power in government between its two largest parties: the Unionists and Nationalists. This is unique within the UK system of devolution and is intended to ensure that both parties have equal representation in decision-making within the Assembly. However, the system is not ideal. Should either one of the largest parties refuse to participate, the entire devolved government comes to a standstill. Civil servants can make minor day-to-day decisions, but any significant decision-making has to be taken by the Executive Ministers. In the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive, the government of Northern Ireland is blocked from making any progress on key issues affecting its citizens. 

One instance of this is the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill, which aims to reform the system of organ donation in Northern Ireland to an opt-out system. Political party leaders signed a letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, asking that Parliament enact further legislation to move forward on this issue. Without a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive, the people are left without their devolved representatives and reliant on Westminster to pass regional legislation. This arguably defeats the purpose of having a devolved government. To make matters worse, Parliament’s busy timetable leaves little opportunity to include devolved issues in the national debate.

Unfinished Business

There is much talk about another Assembly election in Northern Ireland — the most recent one being in May 2022. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, repeatedly threatened to call an election if the DUP refused to participate. However, the initial deadline of 28 October (2022), came and went without one being announced. The most recent deadline extension passed at midnight on the 19 January, with no sign of further development. The latest deadline for calling an election is 13 April. It remains to be seen if anything will come of this given the track record so far.

Of course, part of the reasoning for not calling an election are the ongoing talks between the UK and EU over Brexit — with the Northern Ireland Protocol at the centre. If these talks can produce a satisfactory agreement on the issue, the DUP may begin to cooperate and government may resume in Northern Ireland. On a diplomatic trip to the US, Chris Heaton-Harris stated that there is no fixed deadline for the talks between the UK and EU. If the current strategy is to delay political action with the Northern Irish parties until these talks are concluded, the people of Northern Ireland may be in for a considerable wait.

Despite appearances, the region is no stranger to prolonged periods without government. Assembly deadlocks occurred from 2002-2007 and from 2017-2022. Perhaps, this explains why recent opinion polling showed that half of the main party political leaders in Northern Ireland received a negative performance rating of ‘bad/awful.’ The way forward to the restoration of Stormont appears to rely on the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations, which will be eagerly awaited.

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