After three years without government, Northern Ireland regains its voice just in time for Brexit

After three years without government, Northern Ireland regains its voice just in time for Brexit
A graffiti in Belfast. (Reuters)

Catholics and Protestants have reached a coalition government agreement in Northern Ireland with concessions such as the Gaelic official

Northern Ireland has finally regained its voice, after three years of silence. The Stormont Parliament had been suspended since the elections that the British province convened in January 2017. Catholics and Protestants were unable to close a pact to govern by the coalition, as required by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which stipulates It ended four long decades of bloody conflict. Sad. Worrying. But, as with many other issues in the United Kingdom, the situation was virtually unnoticed by the hurricane of Brexit, which has had the Central Executive monopolized throughout this time.

But finally, the Protestant-unionist-monarchists of the DUP and the Catholic-nationalist-republicans of Sinn Fein have given their approval this Friday to the 62-page document drafted by London and Dublin which, under the title “New Decade, New Approach“, sought to smooth out the points that generate more tension between the two communities, such as the use of the Gaelic language that the nationalists have always claimed.

The British Government had given term to both formations until Monday, January 13 at midnight to get closer positions. If they failed, those that would have been the third elections in less than four years in the British province should be held. But neither party wanted to reach that situation now since both were severely punished by the Norwegians in the last general elections last December.

While it is true that, for the first time, nationalists obtained more deputies than unionists, the real message was a collapse in support for Sinn Fein and the DUP, in the face of the rise of the SDLP (moderate nationalists) and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, APNI (non-denominational center unionists).

The tic-tac of Brexit

The formation of the autonomous government also urged for Brexit. The United Kingdom will finally leave the EU on January 31. And although a transition period begins that will last until the end of 2020, avoiding a hard border between the British province and the Republic of Ireland has always been the biggest headache in the negotiations of the divorce complex.

However, the Norwegians now prioritize other issues, such as the major crisis of the National Public Health System, which affects the entire United Kingdom, but especially hits Northern Ireland, where the worst waiting lists are recorded. The Central Executive had already made it clear that they would not put more resources until the Belfast Assembly was re-established, which had led to different manifestations in recent days.

Now, what does the new agreement raise? The most controversial points were those related to language and tradition. The document drafted by London and Dublin proposes the creation of an “Office of Identity and Cultural Expression” to “celebrate and support all aspects of the rich cultural and linguistic heritage of Northern Ireland.” In this sense, a new “Commissioner” is created to “recognize, support, protect and improve the development of Gaelic in Northern Ireland,” one of Sinn Fein’s requests.

A triumph for the Gaelic

But, at the same time, another “Commissioner” is also created to “improve and develop the language, arts and literature associated with the “British tradition of Ulster”, a point demanded by the DUP.

The document recognizes as official languages ​​both Irish and Ulster-Scots (a dialect of the Ulster area). It also emphasizes that anyone can speak both in one or the other before the Belfast Assembly or before any of its committees.

The leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, has celebrated that the agreement recognizes that in Northern Ireland there are people with “Irish identity” and another with “British identity”, without “need to place one above the other”. For its part, the president of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald, said that the Gaelic now has, “for the first time, official recognition as the Irish language”, while she was willing to cooperate with the DUP in the next Executive.

The elephant at the border

With regard to Brexit, the Belfast Assembly will play a crucial role. Although London and Brussels must negotiate during the transition period the future commercial relations, thanks to the divorce pact that Premier Boris Johnson managed to close last October with the Twenty-seven, it is now avoided that there is a hard border with the Republic of Ireland to Safeguard the peace.

Northern Ireland will be part of the Customs Union of the United Kingdom, to be able to benefit from commercial agreements with third parties. However, its economy will remain aligned with a limited set of European Single Market rules, which means that the border on which controls and verifications will be carried out (by the British authorities with EU supervision) will be at sea of Ireland and not in the division between north and south of the island.

When four years are served with the extension of this protocol, the Stormont Parliament must decide whether to extend it or not. If you endorse it by simple majority, it will extend another four years; if supported by the two communities, eight. If rejected, it would cease to be valid in two years.

The fall of the Autonomous Government in January 2017, in any case, was not due to Brexit. The then 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 Fein 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. The ultra-conservative DUP had used this right of veto in recent years to curb laws that had the majority support of the Norwegian Assembly, as has happened with proposals to legalize abortion or 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.