What's happening in Northern Ireland?

Image credit: Zhifei Zhou on Unsplash.

Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom that is too often  forgotten. Across the Irish sea, its politics, culture and lifestyle are far too often dismissed by those at Westminster. Northern Ireland only recently gained an amount of attention when one of its main parties - the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - helped to prop up Theresa May’s government after the 2017 general election ended in a hung Parliament. It was a move that would have immense political significance.

Alongside this, even someone who absolutely loves London like me can’t help but deny that far too much of the media comes from inside that most brilliant of capitals. While regional broadcasters exist, a national focus on every part of the country is something that media platforms must continue to work towards. Representing all of the country, especially for the BBC, the nation’s public service broadcaster, has to be a top priority if it is to remain sustainable.

The DUP’s internal anguish

However, Northern Ireland has been unable to remain outside of any kind of political spotlight over the last few years, months and weeks. Historically, the ‘Troubles’ lasted three decades, leading to the deaths of over 3,000 individuals over disagreement about whether Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. More recently, the DUP have faced a vast amount of internal political turmoil due to broader political issues facing that same nation. This has been affected by a multitude of geopolitical issues including, you’ve guessed it, Brexit.

Sir Jeffery Donaldson was recently appointed leader of the DUP following the abrupt one month tenure of his predecessor, Edwin Poots. Poots was appointed following a severe decline of confidence in his predecessor, Arlene Foster, who had served as Northern Ireland First Minister between 2016 and 2017 followed by 2020 to 2021. Foster had been leader of the DUP since 2015, but was ousted when 20 DUP MLAs and four MPs signed a letter of no confidence in her leadership.

Edwin Poots, an extreme social conservative who has questioned the age of the Earth, was then appointed, initially beating the more experienced  Sir Jeffery Donaldson MP. Poots tried to ensure a Northern Ireland executive - which must be made up of the largest unionist and nationalist party - was formulated. In doing so, he agreed to Irish language legislation proposed by Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. The legislation would aim to give Irish equal rights to English in Northern Ireland. A revolt from the DUP, once again, ensured his leadership drew to an abrupt close.

The DUP, while a significant party in Northern Ireland, are not necessarily popular among more liberal, progressive citizens. The DUP’s deputy leader, Paula Bradley, has herself apologised for the way parts of the DUP have treated the LGBT+ community, with many of the comments made widely condemned for their discriminatory nature. With the nationalist Sinn Fein taking a more liberal stance on social policy, it is unsurprising to see why they may generate a greater level of support.

Northern Ireland’s role in government

The volatility within the DUP is reflective of the wider volatility experienced by Northern Ireland. The DUP in 2017 suddenly found themselves with more power than they were ever expecting after the general election ended in a hung Parliament. £1bn extra for Northern Ireland was promised in return for the DUP supporting the government on key budgetary votes and in votes of no confidence. The 2017 to 2019 Parliament was one defined by Brexit, or rather, failing to pass any Brexit agreement.

The DUP, in part, has a role to play in this. They repeatedly voted against Theresa May's agreement, which contained the backstop. This ensured that, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the entirety of the UK would remain under the EU’s rules until a free trade agreement was reached. The DUP, and many Conservative MPs, were opposed to this, leading to May’s deal repeatedly failing and her eventual resignation.

Theresa May had always stated that no Prime Minister could agree to any Brexit deal which placed a border down the Irish sea, as this would be separating the United Kingdom under two sets of rules. Yet this is precisely what Boris Johnson’s deal did through the Northern Ireland protocol. Though it sounds complex, it essentially means that Northern Ireland, connected to the EU by land, follows EU regulations while Great Britain can diverge. A border is therefore created in the Irish sea and means checks are required.

Opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol

The DUP have spoken out extensively against the Northern Ireland protocol over the belief that it threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom. It remains peculiar that they repeatedly refused to support a Brexit deal - as a pro-Brexit party - which at least maintained the United Kingdom’s integrity by treating all of its component parts in the same way. Goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland will now face customs checks, which  has led to extensive anger from unionists. The Democratic Unionist Party has always been immensely hardline, which again originates back to its opposition towards Sinn Fein and any kind of nationalism.

Brexit has therefore brought to the surface pre-existing sectarian divisions. The DUP were strongly opposed to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which sought to end the Troubles by freeing prisoners and involving republicans in the formulation of government. Despite the other major parties in Northern Ireland supporting the agreement as a way of getting through the violence, the DUP remained intransigent.

Despite supporting his own agreement, Boris Johnson now believes the EU is behaving in a disproportionate and unreasonable way regarding Northern Ireland. One of the problems with Johnson’s Brexit deal is that its precise merits were not debated. The 2019 general election became a debate about whether Brexit would happen at all, rather than the specific costs and benefits of the Brexit deals on offer. The consequences, therefore, of such an agreement, though written about, could not be seen until now. Johnson has now argued that the EU is behaving in a disproportionate manner with regard to the exports of meats, for example, even though the regulatory alignment of Great Britain compared to Northern Ireland and the EU are different.

Northern Ireland’s position

Northern Ireland has specifically remained in the single market over goods, making the tensions over animal products. The extensive paperwork for checks therefore shows that a border exists, not between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. While the EU has argued that the entire UK should align with them on food standards, the UK government believes this would make it harder for them to pursue free trade agreements around the world.

Northern Ireland has therefore become a barrier as the UK decides its own legacy as to what matters more: preserving the UK’s integrity or free trade agreements across the world, with jurisdictions that have varying standards? The volatile, fragile history of Northern Ireland has meant that it cannot have one or the other. While unionists oppose the protocol because of treating Northern Ireland separately to the rest of the UK, nationalists argue that the protocol is flawed, because it came about as a result of Brexit, which the people of Northern Ireland voted against.

Viewing Northern Ireland in such a secondary fashion has led to the reemergence of violence in Northern Ireland, especially in unionist areas. Near nightly violence in early 2021 led to nearly 90 officers being hurt, while 18 people were arrested due to the different tensions. This goes so against the aims of the Good Friday agreement, which were trying to bring about change via the ballot box rather than through violence.

The prospect of reunification

The great irony is that Brexit was being implemented and supported in its specific version by someone who calls themselves a Conservative and Unionist - i.e. supporting the continuation of the United Kingdom. Yet the biggest threat to the United Kingdom is this model of Brexit which treats parts of the UK differently. Indeed, it can easily be argued that such a Brexit model has increased the prospects of Irish reunification.

Whatever the political background and current affairs, supporters of nationalism would always exist. The Good Friday Agreement provided the right for citizens to declare themselves British, Irish or both and gave the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the right to call a referendum when a majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted that reunification. The precise figure that would justify the need for a referendum remains ambiguous. A poll in the Independent found 47% supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK while 42% were supportive of a united Ireland.

Volatility and uncertainty are something that will always be a part of Northern Irish politics, not least because of the widespread disagreements over its constitutional settlements. The Democratic Unionist Party, in particular, has felt widespread internal turmoil due to its inability to agree to a Brexit deal which preserved the UK’s unity. Brexit has undoubtedly altered the entirety of the United Kingdom economically and socially. It is Northern Ireland however, the one part of the UK geographically connected to the UK, that  will be most affected. It is up to politicians and voters that will decide which path Northern Ireland takes.