Northern Ireland will have a nationalist leader for the first time in its more-than-100-year history after last week’s local elections. But will the unionists accept it?
Ever since the power sharing agreement was set up that made the NI Assembly in Stormont possible, the leadership has been held by a Democratic Unionist Party representative.
In practise, the post is interchangeable with that of the deputy leader, but the role is also symbolic – and the unionists may decide they don’t like the symbol they’ll be asked to support.
This Writer has previously heard rumbles that suggest the unionists would abandon the power-sharing agreements if they can’t be the leaders; that would have serious consequences for the representation of democracy. How can an elected assembly be democratic if only one party can be allowed to take the leadership?
It seems those rumours are not set to become reality quite yet. But the unionists are demanding changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol that prevents a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland inside the European Union’s (EU) single market for goods. It also creates a new trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The demand isn’t unreasonable; there should not be a hard trade border between one part of the United Kingdom and the others.
But it is a part of the agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998 that there should be no hard border between it and the Republic.
And the UK’s departure from the European Union means that a border where goods and people passing through are checked has to be placed somewhere, because the Republic is a member of that bloc.
It’s a problem that can’t be solved, it seems. Certainly the UK’s Tory government seems to have no intention of trying, with promoted-past-his-pay-grade Northern Ireland Secretary Damian Lewis hinting that there will be no plan to introduce new legislation on the protocol in the Queen’s Speech next week.
There may be leeway for discussion; new assembly members have until the end of 2024 to vote on whether to continue with the parts of the protocol that create an internal trade border within the UK.
One aspect of the change to a majority nationalist assembly that is unlikely to cause trouble – at least for now – is Sinn Fein’s aspiration to unite the Province with the Republic once again.
The law rules that the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary may only agree to hold a referendum on reunification if it seems a majority of people in the Province are likely to support that change – and that hasn’t happened yet.
The most recent opinion poll, published in April, puts support at around 33 per cent.
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has said planning for a unity referendum – also known as a border poll – would come within a five-year framework.
So it seems that, even if a way can be found to resolve problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol, arguments are likely to break out over reunification.
It seems clear that Northern Ireland’s history will continue to be difficult for some time to come.
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