Northern Irish devolution collapses again | The Economist
NOTIRELAND OF GOLD most famous exports include Rory McIlroy, George Best, Van Morrison and Peace. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it has been marketed around the world as a model for ending seemingly intractable political violence. And if peace is defined as the absence of violence, it has been remarkably successful. An average of 124 deaths from political violence each year during the three decades of “Troubles” fell to just eight a year in the two decades that followed. But sectarian divisions remain bitter and the centerpiece of the deal, a power-sharing government involving almost every shade of political opinion, has failed.
Since the establishment of the decentralized administration in 1999, she has been absent 37% of the time. Now he is absent again. On February 3, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (pictured) removed his party’s prime minister from government, collapsing the administration. Sir Jeffrey, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the main party backing Northern Ireland’s status within the UK, said the move was a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that prevents a Irish land border by creating a customs border between the province and Great Britain.
the DUP had initially, albeit reluctantly, agreed to the protocol. His constituents, however, are less enthusiastic. An election for the devolved government looms in May, and a recent poll put unionists’ support for the protocol in its current form at just 2%. The day before DUP came out, one of his ministers ordered officials to stop some of the border controls. They refused, fearing the order was illegal. A court injunction then stayed the order until a full hearing next month.
In the early years of the devolved administration, whenever it collapsed, the British government appointed its own ministers to lead the ministries. But in 2017, when a scandal over failed green incentives brought down the administration, local officials were appointed instead. The results were messy. They allowed most government services to operate on a day-to-day basis. But the strategic decisions not taken have accumulated.
Finally, public anger over a nurses’ strike as well as poor election results for Sinn Fein, the largest of the parties seeking a united Ireland, and the DUP forced the two parties to govern together again from January 2020. But then the pandemic revealed their ability to find rancor in the most unlikely areas. Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister went on TV to denounce the Unionist Health Minister’s plans. Senior DUP the figures blocked pandemic restrictions using a veto meant to protect Protestants or Catholics from discrimination.
Many within Stormont, home of the devolved administration, believe the latest collapse is terminal. It’s probably overkill. For the DUP and Sinn Fein, the alternatives – direct government from London or no government at all – are less acceptable than having some power themselves.
But there may well be another extended period without decentralized government. Sinn Fein is set to emerge from the May election as Northern Ireland’s largest party for the first time, and many in the DUP say they will refuse to enter the executive as a junior partner of Sinn Fein, which was formed as the political wing of the IRA. Moreover, the DUP said his veto on devolution will only end if the Irish Sea border is removed. But speak with the EU will at most reduce the impact of the border, and even if the UK government unilaterally overturns the protocol, as Boris Johnson hinted again on February 9, Sinn Fein would then likely exercise its veto instead.
And meanwhile, paramilitary groups continue to operate in the shadows. Indeed, their influence seems to be growing. Six days before Sir Jeffrey brought down Stormont, he met loyalist paramilitary officials and was reportedly told to reverse devolution. In 1983, when Republican gunmen burst into a Protestant church and murdered three elders, or in 1994, when loyalist gunmen murdered six pub-goers while watching a football game, the prospect that paramilitaries limited to political lobbying would have seemed heavenly. But in 1998, Northern Ireland was promised much more. ■
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This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Dashed promises”