UK/Northern Ireland dispatch: return of Stormont government after two-year hiatus comes at a critical time Dispatches
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UK/Northern Ireland dispatch: return of Stormont government after two-year hiatus comes at a critical time

Shannon McKeown-Gilmore is a BCL candidate at the University of Oxford and a JURIST Assistant Editor. She grew up in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill made history last weekend after she was appointed Northern Ireland’s first-ever nationalist first minister. The Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Emma Little-Pengelly has been nominated as the deputy first minister. On Saturday, the Northern Irish government resumed its activities, two years to the day after it collapsed over divisions regarding trade arrangements for the region, which were introduced after the UK left the European Union.

The return of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland follows the ending of a DUP boycott over its concerns with post-Brexit trade regulations. After seven failed attempts at restoring government, a late-night deal was struck two weeks ago and all parties involved were keen to see government returning to business as soon as possible.

Political leaders across the world declared their support for the newly formed government including both the British Prime Minster and Irish Taoiseach. US President Joe Biden issued the following statement:

I welcome and strongly support the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly at Stormont, and I commend the political leaders of Northern Ireland for taking the necessary steps to restore these core institutions… I look forward to seeing the renewed stability of a power-sharing government that strengthens the peace dividend, restores public services, and continues building on the immense progress of the last decades.

The DUP boycott and its resolution

The DUP had purposely collapsed the Stormont government in February 2022 in protest against post-Brexit trade rules which differentiated regulation between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain. Initially, customs checks were implemented on goods going between Northern Ireland and Britain in order to prevent a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (which remains an EU country). Unionists argued that any differences were in breach of the Act of Union 1800 and threatened Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.

Major concessions were made then by the EU with the introduction of the Windsor Framework in February 2023 in order to see a return to government; however, the DUP still refused to end its boycott for another 11 months. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the breakthrough was finally facilitated by the pledge of the UK government to quickly publish legislation to reassure unionists on strengthening their links with Britain.

The significance of a nationalist first minister

Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has had a consociational government to promote stable power-sharing in a society divided along both the lines of religion and politics. At the apex of government are the two positions of first and deputy first ministers; despite the names of these roles, both hold equal power. The largest electoral party at Stormont will nominate the first minister and the second largest will nominate the deputy first minister – the largest two parties will invariably be one unionist party and one nationalist party.

However, throughout Northern Irish history, the first minster role has been filled by a Unionist politician. In a truly historic moment following the last assembly election in May 2022, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin became the largest party in Stormont government for the first time. This led the path for the landmark appointment of Michelle O’Neill as first minister upon the DUP agreement to enter into government. O’Neill said of her appointment that it “would have been unimaginable” to her parents’ generation and that she would “serve everyone equally”.

Although the first and deputy first ministers hold a joint office with equal power, it is hugely symbolic to see a nationalist first minister. Northern Ireland was established just 104 years ago and was described by its leader at the time as a ‘Protestant parliament and a Protestant state’. The historic appointment reflects the change in both demographic and how Sinn Féin is viewed by the population; throughout the Troubles it was vilified by many as it was the political wing of the Provisional IRA. With the party redirecting to be “inclusive and respectful” and O’Neill pledging to be a first minister for “all”, the nationalist party exemplifies the significant political change Northern Ireland has seen since its creation.

The importance of seeing a return to government at this time

The return of Northern Irish government comes at a particularly pertinent time for the people of Northern Ireland. Political tensions increased just days before the restoration of government with the largest strike there in living memory. In January, these strikes saw an estimated 170,000 public sector workers, or 80% of such workers in the region, take to picket lines with schools shut, public transport at a standstill and medical appointments canceled. With the return of the executive, Northern Ireland can now receive a financial package of over $3.8 billion from the central British government which would be partly utilized to fund a public sector pay rise and help struggling public services. A regional representative from the trade union ‘Unite’ said the return of devolution is a “step in the right direction”.

Government in Northern Ireland is a consistently delicate practice and Brexit has only deepened political divisions with the assembly suspended all but 13 months since January 2017. Political affiliations aside, the return of local government should only be seen as a positive for both democratic functioning and delivering tangible improvement to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland.