Illustration by Riana Modi

Yet again, Stormont is in crisis. Being Northern Ireland, it is, as usual, a slightly confusing crisis, which is often unrecognisable to a British reader. 

Some historical context: the Parliament Buildings in the Stormont estate of Belfast have been the site of the Northern Ireland legislature intermittently since partition in 1921. The initial version of Stormont was unrepresentative and deliberately weighted so that unionists always formed the government. After 1998, and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Stormont became a devolved legislature based on the principle of power-sharing, under the D’Hondt method. Through the single transferable vote form of proportional representation, it is ensured that both major communities, nationalist and unionist, are involved in the governing of Northern Ireland. This is (arguably) more representative than UK general elections, which use the first-past-the-post system. 

However, the intense dichotomy of politics at home means it doesn’t always function very well. Since devolution re-entered NI over two decades ago, a third of that time has been spent without leadership. In 2022, Northern Ireland lacks that executive once again. 

Over 6 months ago, Northern Ireland voted for its Assembly, which has power over devolved matters, such as health and education. Since that election, one party has prevented the return of the multi-party Stormont executive. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is excusing this stalemate on the grounds of a need for changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. The British government is in the process of passing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which seeks to unilaterally override elements of the trading agreement, previously signed with the EU. Northern Ireland is facing a fresh assembly election, effectively disregarding the already-expressed opinion of the electorate.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is a result of Brexit which allows for goods to move between a non-EU country, the UK – more specifically, Northern Ireland, and an EU member country, the Republic of Ireland. It’s impossible for these checks to take place at the land border on the island of Ireland, due to the key principle of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that this border is entirely seamless. The checks on goods entering the Republic from the North take place at ports in Northern Ireland, when they arrive from mainland Britain, therefore protecting the open border set out in 1998. 

The importance of the Good Friday Agreement is difficult to overstate. It is the glue which created peace. Most people in Northern Ireland support the GFA: when it was created 71% of the electorate voted in support. The DUP was, at the time, the only party to campaign for ‘no’.

Many unionists see the protocol as separating NI from the rest of the UK, therefore endangering the union they value. Some have labelled the protocol a “sea border”. Across my home, there are signs which read “Ulster is British. No internal UK border”. Three of the counties in Ulster are in the Republic of Ireland; this is not a details-orientated campaign. 

However, the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election’s results show that the overall NI electorate doesn’t support substantial changes or scrapping of the protocol.

Of the 90 available seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in May’s election, 37 returned were anti-protocol MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly). Of those 37, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) holds 9, and doesn’t support the collapse of Stormont to change the protocol. The DUP, single-handedly denying Northern Ireland an executive, holds 25 of 90 seats. Moreover, polling by Queen’s University Belfast in October 2022, found 54% were in favour of the protocol. 70% believed “particular arrangements” were necessary for Northern Ireland to manage Brexit’s impact. 71% would prefer to see the UK and the EU reaching an agreement on the Protocol’s implementation than the UK take unilateral action.

Similar polling in February 2022 found that the protocol is not NI voter’s top concern; 44% ranked it within their three issues of least concern. That is represented in the increase of support for the Alliance party, from 8 to 17 seats. Alliance present neutrality on the union, instead prioritising issues such as healthcare and climate change. They are also a Remain party.

There is no way to interpret these results as support from the Northern Irish electorate to change the protocol. There is no mandate for a stalemate at Stormont, or imposed Westminster legislation. There is a mandate for improving healthcare and a strategy on the cost-of-living crisis. By blocking the creation of a new assembly, the DUP is directly opposing the democratic process in Northern Ireland. By validating it, the British government is displaying the same behaviour.

But maybe Northern Ireland is a special case? If unionism is united in its opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, then perhaps by vastly changing it, the ‘cross-community’ principles of the GFA are being honoured? 

These concepts of simple Nationalist-Unionist or Catholic-Protestant divides are now outdated. That is not to say that these communities do not still exist, or are not important, but that the political landscape is more complex. 

Unionism and Nationalism are now significant minorities. The growth away from extremes and towards blended identities is reflected in a 2018 poll for the BBC which found that just under 60% of people felt Irish or Northern Irish, and just under half felt British. This flexibility is clearest in traditionally Protestant communities. While the recent census results don’t show such a flexible image, British-only identity is declining, dropping 8% in the last decade. It does not play well for unionist parties to be so extreme in their approach to the union in this context of multiple identities, nor for the British government. 

So, where exactly is the British government in all of this? 

Once a mediator in the signing of the GFA during Blair’s premiership, the current British government is ignoring the will of the Northern Irish people, setting out laws to unilaterally change the protocol. It is a gross betrayal of responsibility, and, unfortunately, unsurprising both in the present context and history

This week, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee. He stated that majorities in nationalist, unionist, and other communities, “believe the protocol should be changed, and that there should be no checks on imported goods”. His conclusion was that “the majority opinion in Northern Ireland agrees with what the UK government is trying to do”.

I believe this statement is too wide sweeping, and ultimately untrue. While the recent Queen’s University Belfast polling does record 56% of respondents having concerns about the full implementation of the protocol without grace periods, that does not reflect an overall rejection of all possible checks, as Cleverly stated, nor does it suggest that the majority agree with the UK government action. What the polling and recent election do suggest, as previously recounted, is that the majority in Northern Ireland support the existence of the protocol, and don’t approve of the UK government’s unilateral action. I don’t believe, therefore, NI can be said to agree with everything the government is doing.

Potential misrepresentation of the population of Northern Ireland is condescending. It goes largely unnoticed by the rest of Britain because they are often ill-informed, and for the most part do not seem to care very much about Northern Ireland. A YouGov survey in 2020 found that 39% of Brits lacked an opinion on a NI border poll. Instead of registering as potentially untrue, Cleverly’s statements have the capability to come across to his target voters (notably not Northern Irish people) as patriotism  against the EU. Brexit still forms the basis of this government’s manifesto, and an ongoing argument with the EU is much more helpful to them than a discussion about Brexit’s damage to Britain. Accuracy about the reality of NI could be abandoned for a larger political purpose.

Northern Ireland has a special talent for flag waving, but the discussion surrounding the Stormont stalemate cannot just be about flags and the protocol. It must also be about real people. In June 2021, just under a tenth of the population were waiting more than a year for a first hospital outpatient appointment. The poorest households are currently living on only £29 a week after bills. These are more immediate issues than the myth of the protocol ‘problem’, and they can’t move until Stormont does. If they have any respect for the electorate, the DUP should back down and form an executive. Northern Ireland deserves that executive. The British government has a responsibility to support nothing less.