Three seismic events have occurred at once in Northern Ireland. Firstly, for the first time in 100 years of existence in Northern Ireland, an Irish nationalist party has come first in an election – and not just any nationalist party, but Sinn Fein, the political wing longtime member of the Irish Republican Army. Second, the Alliance Party, which challenges the traditional Protestant-Catholic divide that has defined Northern Ireland since its inception, achieved its best result and has now established itself as a genuine third force in Northern Ireland politics. Irish. And thirdly, the big political row that has dominated Northern Irish politics since Brexit – over the so-called protocol establishing new border controls – has been tested on the public, and while those who oppose it have hardened in their opposition, a majority voted for the parties that suit them well.
So surely the truth of Thursday’s election is that the reunification of the island of Ireland is now more likely and that Northern Ireland will finally be able to end the divisions over Brexit and move on. To the right? Bad.
The reality is that Northern Ireland remains more stuck than ever, a Gordian knot without Alexander to cut it. In fact, in Northern Ireland, there cannot be an Alexander, and that is the problem. Northern Ireland nodes are intentional. Getting stuck is the only way the place works.
Two inescapable truths continue to govern Northern Ireland. The first is that while Sinn Fein outperformed all other parties in Thursday’s election, a significant majority of the electorate still favors staying with the UK rather than joining the Republic of Ireland. The second is that the Northern Ireland that exists is a strange, unfair and largely dysfunctional place that only works when both its nationalist and unionist communities consent to the system which governs it. While more and more people now vote for the Third Way Alliance party, which argues that other bread and butter issues matter more than trade unionism or nationalism, for now the reality political and constitutional status of Northern Ireland remains unchanged.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, power is to be shared between the two largest elected designations in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has until now been made up of blocs identifying as Unionist and Nationalist. Until those who declare themselves “others” – like the Alliance Party – end up in the top two, it doesn’t matter if a nationalist or trade union party ends up first or second, because they have to share power with the other.
This reality most directly affects the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed by the UK and European Union in 2019 as part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit divorce deal. Under this agreement, a trade and customs boundary was erected between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain (i.e. in the same country), to avoid it being taxed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (i.e. between two different states sharing the same island). Since then, Unionist parties in Northern Ireland have fiercely resisted this protocol, arguing that it is unfair because it prioritizes the wishes of one community in Northern Ireland (nationalists) over the other ( Unionists). In Thursday’s election, two things happened, each pulling in the opposite direction. First, parties that supported the protocol won more votes than parties that opposed it. But second, among the unionist parties that oppose it, it is the hardest of the parties that has increased its share of the vote at the expense of the others.
And so we’re back to where we’ve always been when it comes to Northern Ireland, with everything shaken up in theory but nothing changing in practice. Once again we have fallen down the rabbit hole of the Northern Irish border problem into a world of the absurd. “Would you please tell me which way I should take from here?” Alice asks the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. “It depends a lot on where you want to go,” the cat replies. The same is true for Northern Ireland.
One party, led by the EU, presents the protocol as an almost sanctified document to be adhered to in order to keep peace in Northern Ireland. Without this, according to this party, checks on goods moving between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would have to take place at the land border, stoking resentment among Irish nationalists and thus undermining support for the political settlement established by the Bon Accord. of Friday. Yet the protocol was never fully implemented, as it would cause such disruption that it would further stoke resentment among trade unionists, thereby undermining support for the political settlement established by the Good Friday Agreement.
Essentially, therefore, the protocol is presented by one party as an agreement necessary to keep the peace, but has never been fully implemented because it would compromise the peace. (The truth is that neither the UK nor the EU have ever fully implemented the protocol: the UK government has unilaterally extended “grace periods” for businesses to avoid disruption, while the EU agreed not to implement the parts of the protocol that would restrict the flow of medical supplies from Britain to Northern Ireland.) Yet because it has not been fully implemented, the situation has never become so intolerable that anyone has actually changed it. This is a back door solution where everyone agrees that the agreement cannot be enforced or cancelled.
The fear, however, is that the situation may not last longer. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, the most successful unionist bloc in Thursday’s election, have six months to put in place a new power-sharing executive (a government of Northern Ireland, essentially) before the British government imposed direct power from London. and set a date for another round of elections to break the deadlock. Again: the UK government would call an election to break a deadlock over a deal that is essential to security but cannot be implemented because it would compromise security.
To find a way through the crisis, Johnson is flirting with the idea of passing a law giving the British government the power to circumvent parts of the protocol that he deems intolerable. Such a move, critics say, would be a violation of international law. Proponents counter that the UK government has obligations to two international agreements that are now in conflict: the Good Friday Agreement and the Protocol. To maintain the first, the second will have to change. To balance such a move, some experts believe the British government will offer concessions to Irish nationalists who have so far been blocked by unionists. By granting concessions to both parties, officials hope to find a way out of the crisis. If you’re confused, it’s because the whole issue is so devilishly complicated that no one has managed to solve it in the six years since Britain voted to leave the EU.
The truth, as has always been the case in Northern Ireland, is that the choice is between compromise and chaos. “The simple reality is that if you want Northern Ireland to work, we need a new protocol offer and a new historic compromise,” says Paul Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen’s University. of Belfast, who was intimately involved in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. The final compromise itself matters less than the fact that everyone – the EU, Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the two (or three) parts of Northern Ireland – must be equally unhappy with it. Only once everyone is somewhat harmed will the solution be somewhat tenable.
Northern Ireland can feel like a land where raw power and violence still matter in a way that shouldn’t be the case in a modern state. Yet in many ways it is also a deeply unreal place, where the politics of the imaginary are the only thing that works: where democracy is real, but not really; where peace settlements reign, but settle nothing; and where sectarian division is lamented, but rooted in the system praised by all. It is a place where Irish nationalists win but are no closer to Irish unity; where trade unionists lose but are no less powerful; and where clean, rational solutions that look good on paper must become dirty, irrational compromises that look terrible on inspection if they are to have any chance of working.