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Stormont in Northern Ireland
Outside of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly

It is marching season in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein’s May 5 election victory has marchers dusting off flags and polishing boots with added vigor. They know Sinn Féin’s win means problems for power sharing in the executive at Stormont Castle and convening the Northern Irish legislature. Having lost seats, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is determined to show it remains strong and resilient. So it is focused on more than marches; it is concentrating on ways to keep its power intact.  

 

First, the DUP has insisted Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrap (or rewrite) the Protocol reached with Brussels as part of the European Union (EU) Withdrawal Agreement. The Protocol treated the Northern Irish differently from those in Britain, imposing tariffs and custom checks across the Irish Sea to ensure that Northern Ireland did not become a back door for selling goods into the EU. According to DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, several businesses are seriously considering leaving Northern Ireland for the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, to avoid the burdensome paperwork and bureaucracy of the Protocol.

 

Second, while everyone chants ‘Save the Good Friday Agreement,’ the DUP has a problem: an uncomfortable twist to executive power sharing with Sinn Féin. When the Agreement was reached in April 1998, the Unionists were determined to maintain their permanent role as the majority party. Thus, the Unionist leader became “first minister” and the biggest party from the other side became “deputy first minister.”[1] The drafters intended the offices to have equal status, but language and symbolism matter in Northern Ireland and that “first” was the assurance of a permanent majority.

 

The May 2022 elections ripped that up. The DUP came in second and the Alliance party, representing moderates from both the DUP and Sinn Féin, came in third with a strong showing.[2] What if next time, Alliance came in second place? Would power sharing see the leaders of Sinn Féin and Alliance as “first” and “deputy first” ministers respectively, thus excluding the Unionists? Clearly it is time to amend the Good Friday Agreement and take into account political realities. The US, as a mediator of the Agreement, needs to convene the parties.

 

The Prime Minister is trying to save his political career after partying at 10 Downing Street during the height of COVID lockdowns, but his Foreign Minister, Liz Truss, is stepping in. She is given the task of threatening a unilateral withdrawal under the Protocol’s Article 16 in order to keep the power sharing agreement intact and marchers from violence. But the cost of a unilateral withdrawal under Article 16 is high. The EU Vice President Maroš Šefčovič rejected a unilateral withdrawal, threatening tariffs under the UK-EU Free Trade Agreement. The US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said that Congress would reject a US-UK Free Trade Agreement if Westminster tore up the Protocol.[3] Both the EU and US call for negotiations. Truss is willing to negotiate but keeps her threat of unilateral action as an arrow in her quiver.

 

The result is a balancing act: keep the Ulstermen from violent protest and Brussels from imposing new tariffs. The Confederation of British Industry has warned that those tariffs could amount to 10 percent on cars imported from the EU and further delays in maintaining supply chains to and from Europe. On top of a 9 percent rise in the Consumer Price index, these measures will hurt.

 

The British play a critical role in supporting the Ukrainians and have greater flexibility to provide heavy artillery than other Europeans. Their leadership is critical. But a fight with Brussels over the Protocol would sour a strong defense relationship. Minister Truss knows this, giving her leverage in her bargaining with Brussels. By contrast, Prime Minister Johnson has little leverage bargaining with Donaldson and the DUP. He has shot his wallet in making promises and not delivering. Few trust him.

 

Meanwhile, President Biden and Speaker Pelosi are watching events closely. The US played a critical role in bringing the parties to the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish American community is influential and has an obvious preference for Sinn Féin and good relations with the Republic of Ireland. To support a constructive solution, US concern needs to shift to a willingness to amend parts of the Agreement and take into account shifting political realities in Northern Ireland.

 

An acceptable solution exists: Minister Truss negotiates hastily with Brussels to achieve a compromise on the Protocol. Jeffrey Donaldson allows weeks, not months, to reach a satisfactory solution that moves the DUP towards power sharing and prevents violence during marching season. Truss offers some financial incentives (hopefully less than the 1 billion pound sterling which Prime Minister Teresa May offered the DUP in 2017) to give Donaldson a win for his constituents. These solutions are doable, but work needs to start now. Otherwise, the rhetoric on each side of the seas will only get more heated, and a solution more difficult.

 


[1] Good Friday Agreement, April 19, 1998, https://peaceaccords.nd.edu/accord/northern-ireland-good-friday-agreement

[2] In the May 5, 2020 elections Sinn Féin won 27 seats, DUP 25 and the Alliance party 17 .The remaining 26 seats were shared among smaller parties.

[3]  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2022/05/20/uk-refuses-cave-us-pressure-northern-ireland-protocol/

About the Author

Diana Villiers Negroponte

Diana Villiers Negroponte

Global Fellow
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. It does this through scholars-in-residence, seminars, policy study groups, media commentary, international conferences and publications. Activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The program investigates European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including globalization, digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance, and relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.  Read more