Sectarianism in Stormont: how long can devolution last?

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Having been surrounded by Irish Nationalists her whole life, it is no surprise Michelle O’Neill is the first member of Sinn Féin to be elected First Minister of Northern Ireland. The republican party won the assembly election in 2022, making Mrs O’Neill the first nationalist First Minister since Northern Ireland’s creation 103 years ago. However, does this put her alongside individuals like Gerry Adams and Dolores Price on the slow walk towards unification, or is this a consolidation of Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain in the wake of the new deal?

After two long years of low wages, public strife and a government run by civil servants, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has ended their boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly after the newly accepted “Safeguarding the Union” Deal on 31st January, unlocking a £3.3 billion financial package from Westminster. The new deal, negotiated by Rishi Sunak (PM), removes the supposed ‘Irish Sea Border’, abolishing any checks and provisions on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. However, Northern Ireland still retains access to the EU’s single market, with the ability to choose whether to implement any new EU legislation.

Just weeks ago, there was a coordinated strike amongst teachers, nurses, transport workers and other public sector workers protesting their wages, which hadn’t increased in over two years. Mr Sunak has earmarked £660 million to increase civil servants’ wages to correspond with the UK. Yet, similar inequalities remain for other professions, alongside two-year waiting lists for medical consultations. Mrs O’Neill must fix the dysfunctional and unfair public sector, pushing a United Ireland further down the list of agendas.

The devolved assembly has been suspended five times

In Stormont, Michelle O’Neill stands next to Emma Little- Pengelly, the DUP’s deputy first minister. Although her title says ‘deputy’, the terms of the Good Friday Agreement mean that the DUP leader will legally have the same powers as Mrs O’Neill. Mrs Little-Pengelly comes from an equally militantfamily as she is the daughter of the loyalist Ulster Resistance. Both ministers were born in the 1970s; they lived through the violence of the troubles. Theywitnessed car bombings, hunger strikes, the reigniting of Sinn Féin, and the many ceasefires which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Will this agreement hold back the Sinn Féin minister now? Many veteran ‘Provos’ have traditionally thought the Good Friday Agreement was a betrayal of the nationalist cause, conceding governmental powers to the loyalists and the British. The Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald dismisses these obstacles, stating that Irish unity is “within touching distance”.

Unification, however, is questionable. Irish unity still needs the backing of the Northern Irish people. Statistics show that Sinn Féin only won the 2022 assembly election due to the divides amongst loyalist parties, further emphasised by a November 2023 opinion poll by the Irish Times. Whilst Mrs O’Neillstates that this is a “decade of opportunity”, hoping to call a referendum, the poll shows different conclusions, finding that only 30% would vote for a united Ireland. In comparison, 51% would vote against, and 15% are undecided. In addition, due to the rules of the agreement, utilising the D’Hondt system means that the number of seats won in an election is proportional to the number of unionist and nationalist ministers appointed to the cabinet. Furthermore, Sinn Féin must cooperate with the DUP, Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); the Social Democratic and Labour Party have gone into opposition. 

Power-sharing will be a significant boundary to calling a referendum on the nationalist cause

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland has meant the devolved assembly has been suspended five times, with the most prolonged suspension being from 2002 to 2007. Since 1998, Stormont has only functioned for 15 of 25 years. Furthermore, a lack of future cooperation between parties could still prove likely, leading to walkouts and suspensions. Power-sharing will be a significant boundary to calling a referendum on the nationalist cause.

While it is a relief that life is kicked back into Stormont and trade issues have been mostly resolved, Mrs O’Neill faces a long list of tasks to get public life in Northern Ireland up and running. Mrs Little-Pengelly has stated that whilst both ministers are ideologically different, they both want to focus on fixing Northern Ireland’s infrastructure. Hopefully, co-operation will last, but with a long history of walking out and ministerial resignations, another assembly breakdown will likely happen again, signifying the Good Friday Agreement’s desperate need for functional reform. Northern Ireland needs stability, can its politicians deliver?

Image: Sinn Féin via Wikimedia Commons

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