The Stormont Parliament has been voiceless for almost three years. But as with other issues, the situation has gone unnoticed by Brexit, which has monopolized attention
Until not too long ago, the British authorities organized trips for correspondents around the world to see the operation of the Belfast Assembly. One sat on the stands at the top and listened to how politicians discussed Education or Health. At first glance, nothing exceptional. But what looked like ordinary sessions had tremendous significance. Catholics and Protestants had stopped shooting themselves to discuss domestic issues in the British province. Moreover, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the two majority parties of both communities are obliged to govern by the coalition.
The picture is not perfect. Even today, there is a wall that separates the Unionist neighbourhood of Shankill Road with the nationalist Falls Road, whose doors continue to close every day at 5:30 p.m. But, little by little, great advances are being made.
Northern Ireland has a population that does not reach two million people. That means everyone knows each other. In other words, on both sides, everyone knew who was behind the death of a brother, a son or a wife. And yet, after four long decades of bloody conflict, they managed to sign the peace. Therefore, witnessing those ordinary debates about Education or Health was really exciting.
However, the Stormont Parliament has been voiceless for almost three years. It’s speechless after the early elections of January 2017 held in the British province and, since then, Catholics and Protestants have failed to bring positions. Sad. Worrying. But as with many other issues, the situation has gone unnoticed by the hurricane of Brexit that has had the central executive monopolized.
On the way to third elections
Now that the divorce with the EU seems to have been channelled, the minister for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, has established new contacts with the Northern Irish formations to try to reach a pact. If there were no coalition government between the Protestant-unionist-monarchists of the DUP and the Catholic-nationalist-republicans of Sinn Fein by January 13, new early elections would have to be held. They would be the third in less than four years.
None of the two formations are interested in returning to the polls, since both have lost a percentage of votes in the generals of last December 12. The absence of the regional Executive also coincides with an important crisis of the National Public Health System that affects the entire United Kingdom, but especially this British province, where the worst waiting lists are registered.
In any case, the DUP has been the most punished. One of the two deputies who has lost in the last generals has been the historic Nigel Dodds, who was a spokesman for the party in Westminster, with great prominence in the last legislature. When Theresa May lost the absolute majority, the Protestants became the key support of the ‘tory’ minority government.
They were also the only Norwegian voice in Westminster, since Sinn Fein historically never occupies seats to avoid swearing loyalty to the British crown. This, coupled with the absence of power in the Belfast Assembly and the fact that the border in Ireland became the main obstacle of the torturous divorce with the EU came to create a Molotov cocktail that increased tensions between the two communities, giving oxygen to the New IRA, formed in part by dissidents from the already inactive Irish Republican Army (IRA).
They were barely paying attention, until during one of the riots last April in the town of Derry or Londonderry (as interpreted by Catholics or Protestants), journalist Lyra McKee, 29, died after being hit by a bullet. Those responsible asked for forgiveness and said it was a “tragic accident.”
Not even this got the rapprochement between the political class, so London was forced to take the powers of the British province. Last October, Westminster legalized both gay marriages and abortion law, to equate the situation to how it had been for years in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Unable to retain control
The law that liberalized abortion in 1967 for England, Scotland and Wales had never been applied to Northern Ireland, where such practice was authorized only if the pregnant woman’s life was in danger or there was a risk of permanent damage to the physical or psychological health Cases of rape, incest or fetal malformations were beyond these assumptions.
The Protestant unionist leaders of the DUP convened an extraordinary session in the Belfast Assembly to try to prevent ‘in extremis’ the entry into force of these regulations. But finally, they did not achieve their purpose.
These issues had always been one of the biggest points of friction between DUP and Sinn Fein, the former being the most conservative. In any case, there are still big issues of confrontation. Among them, the defence of the Gaelic language advocated by Catholic-Republicans and the complex subject of the legacy, where among other sensitive matters, is the treatment of the victims of the conflict. In any case, if you want to avoid new elections in the British province, both formations must close a new coalition government by the beginning of next year.
The fall of the Autonomous Government in January 2017 was not due to these differences, not even by Brexit. Then the leader of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness, commander of the already inactive Irish Republican Army (IRA), presented his resignation as vice prime minister for the controversy created around the main minister Arlene Foster, at the head of the DUP, for a case of corruption in renewable energy policy. Shortly after, McGuinness died and the Catholic formation was in the hands of the young Michelle O’Neill, with no direct connection to the years of conflict.
In the elections held in March 2017, where the participation of almost 65% was the highest since the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, Sinn Féin became the main protagonist, leaving only 1,168 votes of a victory historical.
They got 27 seats, compared to 28 of the DUP, which remained below the 30 seats that had been secured until then vetoed in the Belfast Assembly to oppose social issues such as same-sex marriage. It was the first time that the unionists were left without an absolute majority in the autonomous parliament, a situation that not only reflects a significant change in Norwegian society but also gives impulse to Catholics to resume their historical objective: the reunification of the island.
With Brexit, no one now wants the restoration of a strict border with the Republic of Ireland, but Sinn Fein could go one step further by requesting the convening of the dreaded referendum to unify north and south.
Under the Stormont agreements, the British minister for Northern Ireland has powers to convene a referendum on the reunification of the island “if there is evidence confirming a change in public opinion on its constitutional status.”