BELFAST – The results of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections have answered a key post-Brexit question: most lawmakers at Stormont in Belfast want the Trade Protocol to stay, not go away.
This is important because the protocol – part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement which the UK government refused to fully implement last year and threatened further disruption — contains an easily misunderstood Consent Section..
On the face of it, in 2024 it gives the newly elected assembly a good chance of shooting the whole thing down.
But in reality, the result of Thursday’s election means that this is no longer possible. The new 90-seat assembly will have no more than 37 union members hostile to protocol. Unionists lost three seats and are now at least nine short of the needed absolute majority.
The text of the protocol gives Stormont lawmakers the theoretical power to vote in 2024 to reject the treaty that kept Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods when the rest of the UK left in early 2021. This agreement required new customs and sanitary controls for British goods when they arrive at ports in Northern Ireland, rather than when they cross the land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Since that agreement, trade unionists who abhor the Protocol’s creation of a so-called ‘Irish Sea Border’ within the UK have hopefully pointed to 2024 as the moment when they could legitimately torpedo the agreement. But their “consent” is not required. Here’s why.
‘Consent’ in power-sharing politics in Northern Ireland is commonly understood in this way both sides The Assembly – the British trade union and Irish nationalist blocs — must agree to important decisions. Both sides of the house can veto it.
The US conveys Good Friday Agreement of 1998 proposed this delicately balanced compromise as essential to promoting peace after a three-decade conflict over the British region that left more than 3,600 dead.
Cross-congregational consent for important decisions was intended to ensure that neither side of the house could impose their will on the other – a fundamental reassurance in a Northern Ireland which for the first half century of its existence was governed exclusively by trade unionists and trade unionists discriminates against its Irish Catholic minority on employment, housing and the right to vote.
But this high bar of “consent” has made maintaining such mandatory coalitions of natural enemies extraordinarily difficult.
In the 24 years since the Good Friday breakthrough, unionists and nationalists have alternately pulled the plug, most recently with Ireland’s Republicans at Sinn Féin in 2017 gone out three years because of still unresolved disputes with their supposed partners from the Democratic Union.
Northern Ireland’s political institutions have often been left in caretaker hands with appointed mandarins, not elected officials. Even today, the outgoing government is paralyzed by the pre-election decision by the Democratic Unionists to step down from the top post of First Minister, making any decisions that require full Executive Branch approval impossible.
Faced with this chronic dysfunction, the London and Brussels technocrats who drafted the protocol understood that their carefully negotiated contract should not be susceptible to rejection by either side. They acknowledged that Brexit itself had already trampled on the concept of “consent” in Northern Ireland, where 56 per cent of voters, including an overwhelming majority on the Irish nationalist side, rejected it in the 2016 referendum.
To defuse expected union resistance, Article 18 of the Protocol stipulated that in 2024 Stormont would be asked to demonstrate “democratic approval” to continue EU import controls on British goods. But this Article 18 provides cross-community support in Belfast as an optional extra – nice, but not essential. Passing the vote would only require a simple majority, allowing one side to overrule the other: a common occurrence in Westminster; the stuff of sectarian spirals in Belfast.
The newly elected assembly is even more protocol-friendly than the previous one. While the outgoing assembly elected in 2017 had 40 unionists, six narrowly in majority, the new grouping retains just 37.
Even this dwindling total is misleading. Anti-Brexit lawmakers from the moderate Ulster Unionist Party are unwilling to join the Democratic Unionists in a vote against the protocol.
That means if a Stormont vote is ever taken under the terms set out in the protocol treaty, the unionists will lose it. Irish nationalists (35 seats) and pro-EU politicians from the burgeoning cross-community Alliance Party (17 seats) form an unassailable pro-protocol majority.
Reflecting his party’s weakened but still crucial role as the largest unionist party, Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, warned on Saturday that the DUP would use the intersectarian consent rule to block the formation of a new government. Donaldson said he would only back down if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson first complies with DUP demands to end EU controls at local ports.
“The Prime Minister and the government have to respond to this,” Donaldson said. “If he doesn’t deliver, he must recognize that this means permanent political instability.”
https://www.politico.eu/article/belfast-results-show-unionists-cant-win-vote-on-brexit-protocol/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Belfast results show unionists fail to win vote on Brexit protocol - POLITICO