Photo: Paul Faith Agence France-Presse Michelle O'Neill, seen here leaving Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish Parliament, in May 2022, could return to her role as Prime Minister shortly.
Peter Murphy – Agence France-Presse in Belfast
January 30, 2024
After two years of political impasse, an end seems in sight in Northern Ireland, where the main unionist party, which boycotted local institutions, reached an agreement with London on post-Brexit rules .
If it succeeds, this compromise – the content of which remains unknown – would mark the end of a crisis which has profoundly affected the public services of the province and exceeded the population. It would also lead to the arrival at the head of local government of a figure from a party favorable to the reunification of Ireland, a historic turning point in the British province with its bloody past.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) withdrew in February 2022 from the Northern Irish executive and parliament, Stormont, to protest against the new trade rules introduced between Brussels and London, which according to it threatened the province's place within the United Kingdom.
After months of negotiations and following an internal vote, the party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, announced on the night of Monday to Tuesday that the DUP was ready to participate in the restart of Stormont thanks to concessions presented by London.
Their details will not be revealed until Wednesday, but the agreement contains “measures which are good for Northern Ireland and which will restore our place within the United Kingdom and its internal market”, defended Jeffrey Donaldson.
He notably affirmed that there would no longer be “physical checks” for goods remaining within the United Kingdom, except, as in all the rest of the country, in the event of suspicion of fraud .
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“A lot of work”
“It was about time, it was very immature of the DUP,” said Ellen O’Connor, a 19-year-old student interviewed by AFP in a nationalist neighborhood of Belfast.
“You can’t just follow the rules when it’s convenient for you, that’s not how democracy works,” she continued, emphasizing the impact of paralysis on “ a lot of people” around her and the recent strike followed by tens of thousands of civil servants to demand better pay.
In a unionist neighborhood, Cilla Flemming, a 73-year-old retiree, waits to see what the agreement contains: “I want to read it and see for myself.”
The absence of a local Parliament and executive, competent on many subjects such as education or health, seriously disrupts public services in the province, a situation aggravated by the cost of living crisis.
London has promised an envelope of 3.3 billion pounds (3.8 billion euros) for the province once the assembly is reformed.
Once the agreement has been adopted in the British Parliament, the Northern Irish local assembly will have to meet to elect a president, and appoint the prime minister of the future local government.
It should be Michelle O’Neill, vice-president of Sinn Fein, big winner of the last local elections, a first in the province.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.
“We are now looking forward to getting things done,” said Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, who came from Dublin.
Brussels “follows closely”
The DUP was particularly opposed to the agreement concluded last year between London and Brussels – called the “Windsor Framework” – which defined rules to prevent a border from separating the province and the Republic of Ireland, as provided for in the peace agreements which ended thirty years of violence on the island.
For some unionists, this framework does not sufficiently protect the province's place within the United Kingdom, with European rules continuing to apply in Northern Ireland.
According to the British Minister for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, the agreement reached on Tuesday will not require renegotiation with Brussels.
A spokesperson for the European Commission, however, affirmed that the institution is “monitoring the situation closely” and “will examine this text”.
Concerned that the agreement would have “no negative consequences” on the “Windsor Framework” or the 1998 peace agreement, Irish Prime Minister Leo Vardadkar spoke with Rishi Sunak on a call he called “good”.
Both hope that the agreement “paves the way” for a return of Northern Irish institutions and north-south ministerial meetings, according to the account of their exchange published by Dublin and London.