After two years without a functioning government, Northern Ireland is finally expected to elect one next Saturday (3). This remarkable breakthrough came after a political impasse was finally resolved in the British Parliament, which agreed to review post-Brexit trade rules.
The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein is expected to take over as prime minister, having secured the largest number of seats in the 2022 elections in the British region.
Government absence and post-Brexit trade rules
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) quit in protest at post-Brexit trade rules. For the DUP, these rules imposed trade barriers with the rest of the United Kingdom and compromised Northern Ireland’s position within the country.
Resolving the impasse, therefore, is a major political victory for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, putting an end to years of disagreements over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements.
Approval of the British Parliament and formation of the government
This Thursday (1st), the British Parliament approved without formal votes a reformulation of the rules governing trade in Northern Ireland, negotiated between the British government and the DUP.
Among the measures agreed are the elimination of any physical controls on goods moving within the UK’s so-called internal market system and the exemption from controls for more than 80% of all goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Shortly after the vote, the DUP formally requested a session of the Northern Ireland Parliament to form a power-sharing government, a key element of the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of political and sectarian violence among Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland and British trade unionists, as well as the British army.
Next steps for Northern Ireland
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson announced that he will meet with the leaders of the other main political parties this Friday (2) to discuss the formation of the new government. His party must assume the role of Deputy Prime Minister, a position with the same powers as the Prime Minister.
The advance comes after weeks of government shutdown, which resulted in mass strikes by public sector workers seeking delays in pay increases. Even with the resolution of the impasse, opposition to the agreement has been limited, with some criticism within the DUP itself and strong opposition from its small rival, Traditional Unionist Voice. The Irish nationalist SDLP also opposed the agreement, considering it downplays the Republic of Ireland’s role in Northern Ireland’s economy.