by Frank Schnittger
Tue May 3rd, 2022 at 08:19:33 PM EST
Voters in N. Ireland go to the polls on Thursday 5th. of May to elect a new Legislative Assembly. The election takes place on the same day as local elections in Britain which could prove disastrous for the Tories, as it represents the voters first chance to vent their disapproval of "Partygate", high inflation, and endemic Tory cronyism and corruption.
In N. Ireland the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and their allies in the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party and loyalist paramilitaries have tried to make the Protocol to the UK/EU Withdrawal Treaty the main issue. They even collapsed the last Executive (aka N. Ireland devolved government) over the issue and have threatened not to allow a new Executive to be formed unless the Protocol is scrapped or radically reformed.
They claim the Protocol creates a sea border between Britain and N. Ireland, and thereby diminishes their "Britishness". The fact that it also gives N. Ireland preferential access to the Single Market many in Britain would die for gets lost in the waves of emotion they have created around the issue.
Their problem is that a large majority in N. Ireland, and possibly even a majority of unionists don't agree. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) would be happy with some minor modifications exempting goods that are obviously intended for consumption in N. Ireland and pose no risk to the "integrity of the Single Market" as a whole.
The centrist and formally non-aligned Alliance party doesn't seem to have much of a problem with it at all as it provides an incentive for British companies who require access to the Single Market to locate part of their business in N. Ireland. The nationalist parties are all in favour as it safeguards the all-Ireland economy, keeps N. Ireland aligned with Ireland within the EU, and ensures that the land border within Ireland remains open and without customs controls.
The Protocol itself provides for its full operation to be subject to regular approval by the Assembly beginning in 2024. However the DUP and TUV, despairing of getting an anti-Protocol majority in the Assembly, are arguing that the Protocol should be subject to cross community consent, that is separate majorities in both the unionist and nationalist communities. Effectively they want to retain a unionist veto over the Protocol.
Their problem is that the Protocol is the direct consequence of the Brexit they pursued despite 56% of the N. Ireland electorate voting for Remain. Where was their concern for cross-community consent then?
Their second problem is that the Protocol is part of the "oven ready deal" negotiated by Boris Johnson and endorsed by a large majority of the British electorate at the subsequent general election. They have always argued that Brexit was a UK wide decision. So too the Protocol.
Their third problem is that the Protocol was only conceived as the solution to N. Ireland's separate constitutional status (Under the Belfast Good Friday Agreement) after they had rejected every other attempt by Theresa May to negotiate a Treaty - none of which required such a Protocol or "Border down the Irish sea".
Making the Protocol their key issue in this election only reminds unionists generally of the DUP's incompetence and over-reach on the issue. Even many unionists see it as a reasonable compromise between Remain and Leave, and retains access to the Single Market for goods even if N. Ireland has lost its representation in the European Parliament, access to European courts, and access to European markets for services.
But the DUP's biggest problem is that even their own electorate don't see the Protocol as the major issue facing them in this election. Most people are far more concerned about the impact of inflation, the deterioration in health services, the lack of investment in infrastructure, and the risks of the war in Ukraine.
Threatening to refuse to form an Executive unless the Protocol is abolished (something not even in the gift of the UK government) while all these issues need to be addressed has not been a vote winner for the DUP. Nationalist and the Alliance parties have been far more focused on these issues, and it looks like they may reap the benefit at the polls.
A new opinion poll out today places Sinn Fein in first place with 27% of the vote (- 1% since the last Assembly elections in 2017);
The DUP at 18% (- 10%);
The Alliance Party at 18% (+ 9%);
The UUP at 12% (-1%);
The SDLP at 10.5% (-1%):
the Traditional Unionist Party (TUV) at 6% (+3%)
and People before Profit and Greens at 2% and 3% (no significant change).
If the poll turns out to be accurate, Sinn Fein will become the largest party and entitled to the First Minister role for the first time in the history of N. Ireland. Previously a unionist has always held the top position. In practice, since 1998 and under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the position of First and Deputy First ministers are co-equal and one cannot exist or make decisions without the consent of the other. This has not lessened the sense of unionists losing their ruling position in N. Ireland, and the symbolism will not be lost on London or the media landscape generally. The DUP has often presented itself as speaking for N. Ireland, and now Sinn Fein will be able to claim that role.
It will then become much more difficult for Johnson to trigger Article 16 of the protocol or else (illegally) legislating it out of existence as his government has proposed, if pro-protocol parties have so obviously secured a majority in the Assembly.
However the true disaster of that opinion poll is that it suggests the DUP will not only fail to beat Sinn Fein for first place, but could end up as the third largest party in the Assembly. The Alliance party tends to pick up far more lower preference votes from UUP, SDLP and minor party voters than the DUP, and so is likely to end up with more seats even if it only matches the DUP's 18% of first preference votes.
This would precipitate a fresh crisis in the the Good Friday Agreement institutions, as modified by the 2006 St. Andrew's Agreement, in that each party is supposed to designate itself as Unionist, Nationalist or Other, and the First and Deputy First Minister roles are supposed to be shared between the largest parties in the two largest designations. The DUP and Sinn Fein secured a deal to that effect in that agreement to copper-fasten their positions as the dominant unionist and nationalist parties. But what if the Alliance party becomes bigger than the DUP?
The DUP has threatened not to take part in the formation of an Executive if the Protocol is not abolished or radically reformed regardless of the outcome of the election, although many believe they are simply not prepared to accept a situation where they are no longer perceived as the top dogs. This rather belies the "Democratic" in their title. It seems they are only in favour of democracy when they win.
But if the opinion poll turns out to be accurate, the electorate will have called their bluff, and they could find themselves on the margins of N. Ireland politics regardless. The situation is complex, and a lot can still happen. There is no point in counting chickens before they are hatched. But it seems that Brexit and the way they handled it may have done for the DUP as the dominant party in N. Ireland. Ian Paisley's legacy will not have lasted long.