Michelle O’Neill | A Balancing Act

Sheltered from the rain in a doorway in the heart of London’s swish Green Park area, last Thursday, was a 47-year-old woman, who was waiting for her car to be brought around. At that moment, the woman, Michelle O’Neill, looked like just another Londoner trying to avoid the rain. She is anything but.

Just days earlier, on February 3, Ms. O’Neill had been appointed Northern Ireland’s new First Minister — an Irish republican leading a U.K. region whose merger with the Republic of Ireland she hopes to usher in.

“This is a day that my parents and grandparents thought would never come about, just with the nature of how the north was founded,” Ms. O’Neill said in an interview on Thursday, referring to the origins of Northern Ireland just over 100 years ago, when her party, Sinn Fein, formerly the political wing of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA), declared the independence of all of mostly Catholic Ireland from centuries of British rule. Six northern counties comprised of mostly protestants and unionists (those wanting to remain with Britain) remained with the U.K.

Ms. O’Neill was supposed to become First Minister in 2022 after her party, Sinn Fein, beat the pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by a margin of two and won 27 seats. However, a constitutional arrangement precluded her from doing so.

As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty that ended three decades of violent struggle in the region, called ‘the Troubles’, the largest republican and largest unionist parties are required to share the leadership of the Stormont or legislative Assembly, through the two politically equal posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. When the DUP pulled out of the arrangement in 2020, angry over the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, there was no Deputy First Minister and the twin position of First Minister also ceased to exist.

The impasse was resolved following the British government’s publication on January 31 of the Safeguarding the Union agreement. The deal does away with regular checks on goods from Great Britain (i.e., the U.K. excluding Northern Ireland) to Northern Ireland. It also involves legislation to affirm the place of Northern Ireland in the U.K. The DUP agreed to return to power-sharing and Ms. O’Neill was appointed First Minister, with the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly as Deputy First Minister.

Ms. O’Neill’s words and moves are being carefully scrutinised. She was asked about why she attended the coronation of King Charles III in May last year. Last week she was asked about the use of the terms ‘North of Ireland’ along with the term ‘Northern Ireland’. She was questioned on her reaction to U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s warm greeting — a hug rather than a formal handshake. In her responses, she emphasised the need to create space for multiple identities and respect.

“I will serve everyone equally and be a First Minister for all,” Ms. O’Neill said in her inaugural speech in Belfast. On her subsequent visit to London last week, she emphasised the existence of multiple identities in Northern Ireland: British, Irish, other.

Ms. O’Neill was born in 1977 to a family of Republicans, almost a decade after the Troubles began, in a village in Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone. She did not have an easy adolescence, becoming a mother at the age of 16. Her own mother gave up her job to look after the baby so that Ms. O’Neill could go back to school. Her father, Brendan Doris, was a member of the IRA, for which he was jailed. He later went on to become a Sinn Fein councillor. Her cousin Tony Doris, also an IRA member, was shot by special forces in 1991. Her uncle Paul Doris, based in Philadelphia, was a fundraiser for the Irish republican cause.

“I am sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict. Without exception,” Ms. O’Neill said in her inaugural speech. She was asked, as per a BBC report, if this was a “coded apology” to those murdered by the IRA. She stopped short of declaring it was, instead saying she wanted to acknowledge historic difficulties and not burden today’s generation with the past.

In 2005, following her father’s decision to quit local politics, Ms. O’Neill won his seat on the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. She became the first female mayor borough shortly thereafter, and then a member of the Stormont. In 2011, she was appointed Agricultural Minister and in 2016 Health Minister. In 2017, she went on to become Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, after the death of Martin McGuinness, who had walked out of a coalition government in 2017, leading to its collapse. When the Stormont reformed in 2020, Ms. O’Neill became Deputy First Minister.

The sporadic nature of governance has exacerbated the region’s cost of living and public sector challenges, leaving Northern Ireland grappling with long healthcare waitlists as well as affordable housing and childcare crises. Addressing these issues is on the agenda for Ms. O’Neill and Ms. Little-Pengelly, as is the publication of a revenue-raising plan. Now that the government has reformed, a £3.3bn funding package from Westminster will be available. However, both the DUP and the Sinn Fein have said this will not be adequate.

Also looming is the Sinn Fein’s political goal: reuniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Its president, Mary Lou McDonald, told journalists in London last week that she expected a referendum by 2030. The Good Friday Agreement requires the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a British official, to call a ‘border poll’ if it appears “likely” that the majority of those voting would wish to leave the U.K. and merge with Ireland.

The current Secretary, the 56-year-old Chris Heaton-Harris, recently said he did not believe Irish unification would happen in his lifetime. Both Ms. O’Neill and Mr. McDonald have said this view fails to take into account the change that is happening, as evidenced by Ms. O’Neill’s appointment. The Sinn Fein leadership has also acknowledged that it will need to work on its own lower polling numbers. Both Ms. O‘Neill and Mr. McDonald have talked about the atmosphere for a referendum being inclusive and democratic. There is also a recognition that the U.K. will have to be part of the conversation, especially with regard to those in Northern Ireland who identify as British.

During an ITV interview last week Ms. O’Neill defended her party’s ability to address Northern Ireland’s many pressing challenges and work towards holding — and winning — a referendum.

“I think we can do the two things at the one time,” she said.

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Happy Rishiversary! Highs and lows of Rishi Sunak’s first year in power

LONDON — Happy anniversary to one of the UK’s most talked-about couples: No. 10 Downing Street and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

It’s been a tumultuous love affair, with a will-they-won’t-they start — and enough bumps in the road to keep a local pothole repair team busy.

As Sunak tries to restore the reputation of his governing Tories — still languishing in the polls ahead of an expected election next year — POLITICO takes a trip down memory lane with a month-by-month rundown of some of the key highlights. Buckle up!

October 2022

It finally happened. After one failed leadership run — in which he lost to Liz Truss and, in a way, to a lettuce — Sunak was elected the new leader of the Conservatives on October 24, 2022.

A day later he became prime minister, and vowed his government would be marked by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” That was in no way a massive sub-tweet of Boris Johnson.

Sunak’s first port of call was to pick his cabinet. He took a slow and steady approach, which No. 10 insisted was “not indecisiveness” — even as some MPs, accustomed to the adrenalin of the Truss and Johnson administrations, found the wait tedious. Sunak’s first few days seemed to mark him out as a PM in control.

Success rating: 9/10. Congrats, Rishi!

November 2022 

November saw a scrap about the COP climate summit. Having initially said he wouldn’t attend the COP27 bash, Sunak caved and traveled to Egypt for the conference on November 7, insisting he absolutely loved the planet.

Later in the month, Sunak had the fun task of creating a new government budget with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, seeking to right the economic ship after the drama of Truss’ brief spell in office.

The cheery document, billed in some quarters as Austerity 2.0 but actually delaying a lot of pain until after the next general election, unveiled a £55 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts, an attempt to ensure that Britain’s economic downturn was “shallower, and hurts people less,” according to Hunt. Something for the bumper sticker!

Its key measures indeed survived contact with the House of Commons and, crucially, didn’t spook the markets.

Success rating: 7/10. COP kerfuffle notwithstanding, Sunak and Hunt could breathe a sigh of relief for a whole eight seconds.

December 2022

Calling it a “winter of discontent” would be lazy plagiarism. So let’s go with “winter of discontent 2.0.”

A whopping 843,000 working days were lost in December to strikes, according to Britain’s statistics authority — the highest since those revolutionary days of November 2011.

With nurses, train drivers, and postal workers all downing tools (or mail?) throughout December, Sunak had a huge problem on his hands, and it didn’t get sorted until some time later. Despite the British love of moaning about train delays, the public largely supported the striking workers — especially the nurses.

Success rating: 3/10. ‘Tis the season of goodwill.

January 2023 

It was a month of ups and downs for Sunak, who gave some … mixed messages on following the rules.

Sunak swiftly fired his embattled Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi after an independent probe found that Zahawi had not been sufficiently transparent about his private dealings with Britain’s tax authorities.

In a letter to Zahawi confirming his sacking, Sunak reminded us all he had vowed to put “integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level” of his administration.

This is the same dude who started the month by … getting fined by police for not wearing a seatbelt.

Success rating: 5/10. Big boys wear their seatbelts. 

February 2023 

Sunak seemed strapped in this month, and it ended up being a pretty good one for the prime minister, who finally managed to reach a deal with the EU over contentious post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.

Sounding like a proud father at a press conference in Windsor, Sunak said Britain and the EU “may have had our differences in the past, but we are allies, trading partners and friends,” and hailed “a new chapter in our relationship.” A promised rebellion by allies of Sunak’s old nemesis Boris Johnson later came to nothing, which definitely didn’t provide Sunak with a good old chuckle.

Success rating: 10/10. Sunak managed the previously unthinkable: moving post-Brexit policy forward without loads of kicking and screaming from the Conservative Party. Plenty of time for that later!

March 2023 

March saw the U.K. build on its much-heralded AUKUS pact with Australia and the U.S., with Sunak joining President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a submarine base in California to hail a new defense mega-deal between the three nations. It marked another win for Sunak’s plan to repair Britain’s battered image abroad and create jobs along the way.

Closer to home, however, the PM had some proper first-world problems brewing.

As voters grappled with ever-rising energy costs, the Guardian revealed that the mega-rich leader’s swimming pool in his Yorkshire home used so much energy that the local electricity grid had to be upgraded.

Such everyman woes provided a great backdrop for another government budget. Chancellor Hunt had them cheering from the rafters across the U.K. as he declared that the country would duck a technical recession this year.

Plans to help with the eye-watering cost of childcare and address Britain’s sluggish economic growth also featured prominently in another fiscal statement that may not have shifted many votes, but came off without major drama.

Success rating: Big deal and a big budget. Rishi, go have a swim to cool off. 7/10.

April 2023 

April was — whisper it – a pretty quiet month, no small feat in British politics.

There was the small matter of an investigation being launched into a potential breach of the MP code of conduct by Sunak. It would be a whole four months, however, before that probe found he had indeed broken the rules, but only as a result of “confusion.” We’ve all been there.

Success rating: 5/10. A holding-pattern month.

May 2023

In May, Rishi faced his first big electoral test as prime minister: local elections. He didn’t do well, with the Conservatives losing over 1,000 seats, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats making big gains.

Success rating: 2/10. Blame the voters!

June 2023

Still, nothing proves you’re confronting your problems at home like … heading to the other side of the Atlantic for a big visit to America. Sunak got his global mojo back on a trip that saw an unlikely bromance blossom between Sunak and Biden.

Biden pronounced the special relationship “in real good shape” — and even got Sunak’s name right this time (if not his job title.)

The rest of Sunak’s month was dominated by an angry row with Boris Johnson, who quit in a huff alongside a few allies after a damning report on his conduct in the Partygate affair. The row revealed how few acolytes Johnson still had in the parliament, and arguably strengthened Sunak’s position as the only game in town.

Success rating: 9/10. If it doesn’t work out here, Sunak could always make it big stateside.

July 2023

You can always count on a by-election or two to spice things up, and these were a mixed bag for Sunak. The prime minister’s Tories got a thumping in fights for the parliamentary seats of Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome.

There was one glimmer of hope, however: A narrow and unexpected win in Uxbridge, Johnson’s now-vacant seat, showed Team Sunak that targeted campaigning against environmental policies seen by some as overbearing could pay off.

Also in June, Sunak made a bold pay offer to striking public sector workers, and helped ease industrial tensions.

Success rating: 6/10. Few expected the Uxbridge result, even if Sunak’s fortunes elsewhere looked dicey.

August 2023

August saw grim headlines on what the government had billed as “small boats week” — a chance to show off all the hard work Sunak’s government was doing to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in unsafe vessels.

As the week unfolded, disaster struck one element of the government’s tough asylum policy. A plan to move migrants onto the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge instead of putting them up in expensive hotel accommodation was derailed by concerns about legionella bacteria in the water supply. It was a PR headache for a government that hardly needed one.

On the brighter side, Sunak carried out a smooth and limited government reshuffle without anybody calling him mean names.

Success rating: 4/10. Nobody had “legionella” on the comms grid.

September 2023 

Mr. Brexit Fix-it returned in September as a deal struck by Sunak ensured the U.K. successfully rejoined the EU’s Horizon multibillion-euro science funding scheme. It was another piece of unfinished Brexit business resolved, to the delight of top scientists and other massive nerds.

Sunak also seemed to land on a clear domestic dividing line in September. In a hastily-arranged Downing Street speech after his plans leaked, Sunak took a big red pen to parts of the government’s climate agenda, announcing a slowing of several key U.K. green policies.

A fierce backlash ensued from business groups, climate activists and some members of Sunak’s own Conservative Party.

But the PM’s supporters saw it as the first time Sunak had drawn bold lines in the sand ahead of the election, gambling that tapping into anxiety among motorists could see the Uxbridge trick repeated.

Success rating: 5/10. Nice Horizon deal, shame about the planet!

October 2023

The Conservative Party conference was dominated by … Liz Truss and trains.

Yep, the star of last year’s show made a triumphant comeback on the conference fringes, where she was greeted like a returning hero and urged Sunak to push for economic growth. Truss — plus Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage, who swanned around the place — showed just how fractious the Tories remain, with plenty of Conservative leadership wannabes flaunting their wares.

The conference meanwhile saw endless speculation about whether Sunak would cancel a key part of a major high-speed rail link, an announcement he saved for his big speech at the close, a treat to the North of England, which famously hates useful transport links.

October would get grimmer still for Sunak, as two more by-election defeats suggested Labour really is on the comeback trail. There’s always November!

Success rating: 4/10. A month of Labour gains, trains and Nigel-mobiles.

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Paris joins celebration of Irish language’s renaissance as it marks 50 years in EU

The Irish Cultural Centre in Paris held a ‘Festival of Ideas’ event from June 15 to June 17 to join in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the European Union on January 1, 1973. The final day’s activities consisted of panel discussions and concerts celebrating all things Irish, from the Irish language to traditional music and cuisine.

Located in Paris’s 5th arrondissement (district), the Irish Cultural Centre (ICC) was inaugurated in 2002 on the site of a former Roman Catholic educational establishment for Irish students, with even a small chapel on the site. The names of the different dioceses throughout the island of Ireland can also still be seen when wandering through the open courtyard, which had rows of chairs set up in front of a stage for Sunday’s big events.

The courtyard of the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

From June 15 to June 17, the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris held its “inaugural” Festival of Ideas to celebrate Ireland’s relationship with the European Union (EU), “enable our public to engage with contemporary Ireland and to discover current preoccupations such as the renaissance of the Irish language” said Nora Hickey M’Sichili, the centre’s director.

Celebration of the Irish language

The Irish language featured heavily in many of the panel discussions.

The official language of Ireland along with English, the Irish language has undergone a long journey within the EU. When Ireland first joined the EU on January 1, 1973, Irish was listed as a treaty language. However, it eventually gained full official and working status on January 1, 2022, putting it on par with the EU’s 23 other official languages.

“Language is political and to be an Irish speaker is political,” said Irish language activist Aodán Mac Séafraidh, encapsulating the sentiment of many of the panellists discussing the politicisation of the Irish language on Sunday. Each speaker clearly had their own relationship with the Irish language and it “was interesting to hear all these varied ideas about the Irish language outside of an academic setting”, said Sean Ryan, a communications professor at ISCOM. This festival also “reflects this wider need of people to exchange ideas and be open to ones that differ from their own”, said Ryan.

Speaking at the Festival of Ideas event, (from left to right) Professor of Social and Political Philosophy Helder de Schutter, Irish language activist Aodán Mac Séafraidh and mediator William Howard at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Speaking at the Festival of Ideas event, (from left to right) Professor of Social and Political Philosophy Helder de Schutter, Irish language activist Aodán Mac Séafraidh and mediator William Howard at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

Mac Séafraidh is a member of the language and culture project Turas at the charity East Belfast Mission, located in a traditionally Protestant area of Belfast. Turas (which means journey or pilgrimage in both Irish and Scots Gaelic) is “an Irish language project which aims to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language”.

Increase in Irish spoken

For years, said Mac Séafraidh, the Irish language was associated with Irish republicanism, but it can now be used as “a vehicle for reconciliation” between the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland. Banned several times throughout the island of Ireland’s history, the UK introduced the Identity and Language Act on May 31, 2022, officially recognising the status of the Irish language for the first time in Northern Ireland.

In recent years, the Irish language has become more widely spoken across the island of Ireland. According to the latest census data from the Irish Central Statistics Office, the number of people who said that they could speak Irish increased by 6% between 2016 and 2022 to 1,873,997 (out of a population nearing 6 million). The latest census data from Northern Ireland shows that the number of people who said they could speak Irish rose from 10.65% in 2011 to 12.45% in 2021 (out of a population nearing 2 million), while the number of people who said they spoke it as their main language rose from 4,164 in 2011 to 6,000 in 2021.

The Irish language is not only experiencing “a renaissance” in Ireland, but also in France. In addition to holding events and concerts, the ICC offers Irish language courses from levels A1 to B2. During a concert by Irish singer Jack L on Sunday, William Howard, one of the event’s organisers, said that when he “started teaching Irish at the ICC in September 2021, it was quite easy for people to sign up to take classes. However, there are now waiting lists for all four classes. The students are mostly Irish and French, but we also get a small number from other nationalities”.

Members of An Gaeltacht-sur-Seine enjoy a picnic at lunchtime during the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Members of An Gaeltacht-sur-Seine enjoy a picnic at lunchtime during the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

At lunchtime, in between bites of sausage and colcannon (mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage), Irish and French visitors alike had the opportunity to chat with members of An Gaeltacht-Sur-Seine, a group that meets once a month to speak Irish. The Festival of Ideas is “a nice occasion to meet new people and Irish people. It makes me proud to see French people wanting to learn about Irish culture”, said member Linda Moloney in French, respecting the group’s rule to only speak in Irish (and in French only when necessary) on Sunday.

Ireland and the EU

“I think it is a great idea to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the European Union. Some people at the time were against joining the EU, they were even scared that Irish people would leave Ireland. But we’ve only had benefits from EU membership, from cultural to economic and being less dependent on the UK,” said An Gaeltacht-Sur-Seine member Philomena Begley. This sentiment was echoed in a panel discussion after lunch by Irish journalist and broadcaster Dearbhail McDonald, who said that “joining the EU lessened our dependence on the UK and also had economic and social benefits, especially for women and girls”. For instance, EU legislation led to the abolition of the Marriage Bar act, which had mandated that women resign from their jobs once they had gotten married, in 1973.

McDonald continues: “When we joined the European Union, we were a poor country that received over €40 billion in EU funds between 1973 and 2018.” Times have changed since then. Between 2018 and 2020, Ireland contributed €377 million in average net contributions. Despite being more prosperous now thanks to high-tech industry and global exports, the EU continues to greatly support Ireland. As recently as December 12, 2022, the European Commission approved a €1.2 billion scheme to support Irish companies affected by the war in Ukraine.

Priest Aidan Troy poses with attendees of the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Priest Aidan Troy poses with attendees of the Festival of Ideas event at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

The repercussions from Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in particular have seen Ireland grapple with its historic policy of neutrality now that it plays a bigger role in the EU, said McDonald. Soon after establishing itself as an independent republic in 1937, Ireland adopted a policy of neutrality when World War II began as a means of both countering the potential threat from Germany and resisting the historical imperial power of the UK. An Irish Times poll published on Saturday revealed that 61% of voters favoured the state’s current model of military neutrality, while only 26% said they would like to see it change. On the other hand, 55% of voters supported “significantly increasing Ireland’s military capacity” to defend airspace and territorial waters, while a majority of other voters said they were in favour of seeking help from other countries for the country’s defence needs. This poll came as the Irish government prepares to hold a series of public discussions about the future of Ireland’s neutrality and defence policy next week. McDonald finished the panel discussion by pondering Ireland’s future within the EU: “What does Ireland’s future in the EU look like, given that it values its neutrality but also wants to increase defence spending and show support for Ukraine [in its war against Russia]?”

Ireland also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this year on April 10. This political deal was signed by the British and Irish governments, and Northern Ireland’s major political parties on April 10, 1998. It is credited with bringing an end to most of the violence associated with The Troubles, a sectarian conflict that began in the late 1960s between the overwhelmingly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who wanted the region to remain part of the UK, and the overwhelmingly Catholic nationalists, or republicans, who wished to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. The final panel on Sunday was a discussion between McDonald and Aidan Troy, a priest who received death threats in June 2001 while he was stationed in Ardoyne, Belfast for accompanying Catholic parents and children along loyalist parts of Belfast every day for three months. He said that he had accompanied these parents and children on their way to school in the hopes of protecting them, as they were being harassed by some loyalists living in the area. This incident clearly demonstrated that “The Troubles didn’t end with a stroke of a pen”, said McDonald. Troy said that the biggest lesson he learnt from his time in Belfast was that “there’s only two things you can do when you’re confronted with violence, you can either demonise your enemy or you can talk to them”.

A celebration of Irish culture

The final events of the day featured musical performances by indie-folk singer and songwriter Inni-K as well as Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta, a duo from Connemara (a region of Co. Galway, in western Ireland). Both acts performed traditional Irish music using traditional Irish instruments, including the bodhrán (a frame drum), blended with Sean-nós singing, which is generally unaccompanied traditional Irish singing performed in the Irish language. In between songs, Seamus Uí Fhlatharta told the crowd that he loved “having the opportunity to play around with a genre [Sean-nós singing] that is generally quite rigid. This is what this festival is all about”!

Connemara duo Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta peform traditional music and song in their mother tongue of Irish at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023.
Connemara duo Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta peform traditional music and song in their mother tongue of Irish at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, France on June 17, 2023. © Mariamne Everett

Even at the end of a day where events had been interrupted by heavy rain more than once, which necessitated a quick change of venue, the festival’s attendees seemed happy overall and overjoyed at having spent the day listening to different panels and musicians, immersing themselves in Irish culture and meeting members of the Irish community. “In my opinion, there hasn’t been so much excitement, creativity and joy in being Irish since the 1996 ‘L’imaginaire Irlandais’ [Irish Imagination] festival in France! The unbridled joy we’ve felt over the past 3 days has brought me back to my youth in Ireland,” said Patricia Killeen, one of the leaders of Le Cercle Littéraire Irlandais (The Irish Literary Circle) and a freelance writer. “I hope that the ICC will be there, with its rich cultural agenda, and lovely ambiance of welcome and inclusion, for our children, and their children’s children, for the French to explore” and remain “a cultural and community haven for Irish people living in Paris,” concluded Killeen.

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Could the Stormont Brake derail the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is set to vote against the UK government’s plan for post-Brexit trade agreements in Northern Ireland.

Its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, announced on Monday that, following a meeting between party officials, the DUP will vote to reject the so-called ‘Stormont Brake’ aspect of the UK-EU agreed Windsor Framework.

An overhaul of the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, the Windsor Framework aims to address some of the concerns raised by the British unionists in Stormont (the Northern Ireland parliament) over trade borders and what it might mean for the future of Northern Ireland within the UK.

“[The Stormont Brake] does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties,” Donaldson said on Monday.

The UK’s opposition Labour Party has already said it plans to vote with the government – all but guaranteeing the motion will pass, regardless of the DUP’s disapproval.

But what is the Stormont Brake, what is the DUP hoping to achieve by rejecting it and what will this mean for the future of power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

What is the Windsor Framework, and why was it introduced?

Since the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Northern Ireland – which shares the UK’s only land border with the EU – has occupied a complex regulatory grey area between UK and EU legislation. The Northern Ireland protocol and subsequent Windsor framework hoped to address it.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by former PM Boris Johnson, came into force in 2021, as an attempt to prevent hard trade borders on the island of Ireland. It moved regulatory and customs checks to the Irish Sea.

But it caused disagreements between London and Brussels and angered Northern Ireland unionists who opposed the idea of an effective border in the Irish Sea. Jeffrey Donaldson referred to the Protocol in 2021 as “the greatest ever threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom.”

Under the Protocol, Belfast was still subject to certain EU laws, without Northern Ireland representatives having any say in how they are made or implemented.

On 27 February, Rishi Sunak and the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, presented the Windsor Framework, hailed as the beginning of “a new chapter” in Westminster-Brussels relations.

Von der Leyen said the deal “respects and protects our respective markets and our respective legitimate interests. And most importantly, it protects the very hard-earned peace gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement for the people of Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland.”

What is the Stormont Brake mechanism?

With the Windsor Framework’s Stormont Brake mechanism, the Stormont Assembly could formally reject new EU laws for goods.

Westminster says it gives an “unequivocal veto” on new EU rules applying to trade in Northern Ireland, should 30 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly from at least two parties raise objections.

“The Stormont Brake is a mechanism designed to try to give members of the Northern Ireland Assembly some kind of a say on new EU regulations,” explained Dr Jamie Pow, a Lecturer in Political Science at Queen’s University Belfast.

With 25 seats in parliament, the DUP would require the support of just five other politicians to trigger the brake. There are currently 12 more pro-British unionist lawmakers in Stormont.

Implementation of the rule would then be automatically suspended while the UK and Brussels discuss it.

Should the EU contest the triggering of the Brake, the matter will be referred to an independent arbitration panel, rather than the European Court of Justice.

Why is the DUP against the Stormont Brake?

In his statement, Jeffrey Donaldson said “It remains the case that the ‘brake’ is not designed for, and therefore cannot apply, to the EU law which is already in place and for which no consent has been given for its application.

“Whilst representing real progress, the ‘brake’ does not deal with the fundamental issue which is the imposition of EU law by the protocol,” he added.

“From the DUP’s point of view, it seems to be concerned that really it will still be up to the UK Government to decide whether to pursue the brake or not,” Dr Jamie Pow told Euronews.

“So in other words, the Stormont Brake would sound the alarm bells from 30 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it would still be for the UK Government to decide whether to go through with it,” he added.

New reports into the details of the mechanism reveal that, even if the unionists applied the brake, the UK and Brussels could decide that the law does not merit a UK government veto.

If the UK and EU agreed to proceed with the rollout of the EU law, this would be subject to a formal vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.

But any unionist objections can still be overruled by the UK government, citing “exceptional circumstances” or by claiming the EU law “would not create a new regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

“It’s interesting because in a nutshell, what you could characterise the DUP’s concerns as being are in many ways due to a lack of trust between it and the UK government,” Pow revealed.

“I mean, obviously there’s the bigger UK-EU picture, but really so many of the stumbling blocks have been the DUP’s lack of trust in the UK government and it is things that the UK government could probably do unilaterally that could actually gain some trust.”

Why is DUP support important?

With only eight votes in a 650-seat House of Commons, the DUP won’t be able to prevent the law from being enacted – even though its opposition could encourage hard-line Brexiteer Conservative MPs to vote against the government.

In protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, the DUP has refused to take part in the country’s power-sharing institutions for the last 10 months, arguing that its concerns have still not been addressed.

Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin secured a historic victory in elections in May 2022, becoming the biggest party for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history.  

Sinn Féin’s Vice President, Michelle O’Neill, has said the DUP’s refusal to revive power-sharing at Stormont amounts to “denying people the change they voted for.” She has urged the unionists to accept the Windsor Framework and “get Stormont moving”.

Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party is committed to reviving power-sharing but insists unionist demands must be met.

“At stake here is the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland,” Dr Pow told Euronews. “The DUP so far has boycotted the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, effectively leaving Northern Ireland without a devolved government for over a year now. So to be able to make progress on the protocol is linked to giving the DUP a good enough reason to go back into devolved government and get that back up and running.”

The unionists’ rejection of the Stormont Brake will all but rule out any hope that the Stormont assembly would be revived for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement on 10 April.

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Northern Ireland confronts compromise in post-Brexit deal

Britain and the European Union have reached a new agreement on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, raising hopes that more than six years of wrangling over the U.K.’s departure from the bloc may finally come to an end.

The deal, announced Monday by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is designed to replace existing rules that have been criticised for effectively creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, weakening the region’s links to Britain.

What was the deal about?

The government says the new arrangements, known as the Windsor Framework, will eliminate the need for customs checks on most goods shipped to Northern Ireland from other parts of the U.K., cutting costs and reducing red tape.

The deal also reduces the role of EU law and the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, a key demand of Brexit supporters who want to shake off the remnants of the bloc’s influence.

Why are we still talking about this?

Northern Ireland has a unique position in the Brexit negotiations because it is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the European Union. That border, which separates Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland to the south and east, is also particularly sensitive because of the history of sectarian violence on the island of Ireland.

The 1998 Good Friday agreement that largely ended three decades of violence was underpinned by the fact that both Northern Ireland and the Republic were members of the EU.

That made it possible to remove border checkpoints that had been a source of tension and allow trade to flow freely, spurring economic development and creating jobs on both sides of the frontier.

When Britain left the bloc, negotiators for both sides pledged to keep the border open, even as the rules on everything from food and agriculture to steel and medicines began to diverge.

That forced them to come up with a new way to protect their internal markets from products that didn’t comply with their laws.

Why didn’t Brexit settle these issues?

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to resolve these questions with the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which required customs checks on some goods shipped from other parts of the U.K. as they entered Northern Ireland.

But Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, who want to maintain the region’s historic links to Great Britain, demanded that the protocol be scrapped because they said it treated the region differently from other parts of the country and weakened its status as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Unionists and staunch Brexiteers also opposed the protocol because it meant that many EU rules still governed trade in Northern Ireland and because the European Court of Justice was empowered to settle disputes about these rules. That, they said, meant the people of Northern Ireland were subject to laws they had no role in making, creating a “democratic deficit.”

The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest unionist party, resigned from Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government early last year to put pressure on officials in London to renegotiate the protocol. Northern Ireland hasn’t had an effective government since then.

How have these issues been resolved?

Mr. Sunak’s deal scraps most checks on goods shipped to Northern Ireland from other parts of the U.K.

Products destined for use in Northern Ireland will now travel through a “green lane” without any checks other than those normally required for internal shipments. While those destined for the Republic of Ireland will still go through a “red lane,” both sides have agreed to track those goods using technology and by sharing data from commercial declarations, reducing the need for border inspections.

Border checks will now focus on “risk-based and intelligence-led operations targeting criminality and smuggling,” the U.K. government says.

Searching for an understandable example, Mr. Sunak repeatedly mentioned that sausages would no longer have checks and could move more swiftly across the Irish Sea — a move certain to be met with satisfaction in Belfast.

The absence of the humble banger on Northern Irish grocery store shelves had become a symbol of post-Brexit turmoil.

As a result of the deal, some 1,700 pages of EU law will no longer apply in Northern Ireland.

But about 3% of EU laws will still be applicable in the region, meaning there is a possibility that the European Court of Justice could still be involved in a small number of disputes.

The deal also seeks to protect the democratic rights of Northern Ireland by giving the regional assembly the power to object to any new EU rules that may apply in its territory.

If this “Stormont Brake” is triggered by 30% of the members of the regional assembly from two or more parties, the rule in question would be suspended unless both the U.K. and EU agreed to override those objections.

Have all these issues been resolved?

The biggest question remaining is whether the DUP will support the deal.

While Mr. Sunak received broad support from the House of Commons on Monday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party will take time to “study the detail” of the agreement before deciding on its position.

“There’s only one boulder left in the road, and that is the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “They could turn a victory into defeat if they say no to this deal.”

Will Northern Ireland now get a government?

Not immediately.

Mr. Sunak stressed that this agreement is only about the trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, though he hopes it will lay the groundwork for the DUP and other parties to return to government.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement seeks to promote peace in Northern Ireland by requiring unionist and nationalist politicians to share power in the regional government.

“I will respect the fact that the local parties need time and space to study the details,” Mr. Sunak wrote Tuesday in the Belfast Newsletter.

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