Northern Ireland’s devolved government will unite for the first time in almost two years.
The devolved legislatures have postponed any dispute over Brexit from 2022 – but this may change after a deal was reached last night.
Here’s what you need to know.
How does the Northern Ireland Assembly work?
To understand the importance of this agreement, you need to know how the Assembly works.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the hard-won peace agreement that ended the Troubles, created the Northern Ireland Assembly.
This is part of the Westminster government’s devolution plans, and means some powers are handed over to regional authorities.
The Legislative Council consists of 90 members (MLAs), with five people elected from each of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies – similar to a Westminster parliament.
The Executive is part of the Assembly. This body consists of ministers and politicians from the elected parties with the most seats, runs the day-to-day government, and implements laws passed by the Assembly.
However, unlike at Westminster, the Good Friday Agreement means both unionists and nationalists must work together in the Executive – and it cannot be implemented without the participation of both parties.DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Liam McBurney – PA Image via Getty Images
Why is it a mess?
In short, NI’s largest Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), refused to take its seat in the devolved government because of the post-Brexit agreement the UK made with the EU in 2019.
To prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson agreed to place a trade border in the Irish Sea. That means checks must be carried out on UK goods sent to NI.
Unionists saw this as a sign that Northern Ireland was now closer to the Republic of Ireland than the rest of the UK, despite still being technically outside the EU – so the DUP boycotted the Assembly.
Rishi Sunak is trying to remedy this through the 2023 Windsor Framework deal by introducing a “green lane” for goods traveling from England to Northern Ireland.
However, the DUP continues its boycott, even though they are no longer the largest party in the Assembly.
The nationalist Sinn Fein party won more seats than the DUP for the first time in the May 2022 election, but power-sharing rules at Stormont prevented Sinn Fein from governing without unionists.
What triggered the DUP’s change in attitude?
After almost two years – and a five-hour meeting on Monday evening – Northern Ireland’s main Unionist party has finally agreed to return to a power-sharing devolved government.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson explained that the new law, agreed with Westminster, would “abolish checks on goods moving in the UK and remaining in NI, and end NI blindly following EU law”.
He added: “There will be legislation protecting the Acts of Union, which guarantees Northern Ireland businesses unrestricted access to the rest of the UK.”
He said this would be a “legislative commitment” no matter who would be in government after the next general election.
However, Sir Jeffrey added: “We can only take action after the government has faithfully implemented its legal and other commitments.
“Both party officials and the party executive have given me a mandate to move forward… based on the proposals put forward by the government, subject to and based on the government implementing the measures in the package.”
The changes come after the public sector went on strike in NI over pay, which has been frozen since a power-sharing agreement collapsed.
On Monday evening, Sir Jeffrey said he had promised unions that rewarding public sector workers would be a priority when the institution was restored.
The British government has pledged an extra £3 billion to help public services in the region, and offered a pay rise to thousands of workers whose wages have been frozen since local government came to a standstill.
It is thought Westminster could also offer symbolic guarantees of NI’s role in the union, including changing the names of the red and green customs lanes for goods entering the region.
While we haven’t seen any further details regarding this plan, there are some potential obstacles in the future.
What happened next?
It will most likely be discussed in parliament within days, as the legal deadline to form an executive body is February 8.
The NI Secretary will then ask Stormont to return so that a speaker, deputy first minister and deputy first minister are nominated.
Northern Ireland Minister Chris Heaton-Harris said it was a “welcome and significant step” and said the British government would “keep this agreement” and help the parties meet this week to finalize the deal.
Westminster does have a tricky balancing act in the coming days.
They should try and convince the DUP that they have made changes, while telling the EU that they have not substantially changed the withdrawal agreement.
So, is everything smooth now?
Protesters campaigned outside a key meeting last night, calling the DUP a “sellout” for agreeing to the deal, and expressing concern that it increases the chances of Irish unity.
Members of the rival union – the Traditionalist Unionist Voice Party – said the DUP was guilty of “betraying their solemn promises” and “capitulating on the Irish Sea border, EU law and the suspension of Article 6”.
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson also admitted there was a lot of debate within the DUP when the deal was discussed.
However, Sir Jeffrey denied the allegations and said the report did not reflect reality.
Condemning the leak, he said: “No one tonight in our meetings at any stage or in my party officials’ meetings ever used the word treason but it was used tonight to describe someone who leaked information from a private meeting.
And while not everyone in the DUP was happy with the deal, Sir Jeffrey said the vote was “decisive” and he had a mandate.
However, Davy Thompson of the Unite trade union warned that striking unions would not be enough to call off their industrial action on Thursday as there was no clear timeline yet for the government’s restoration.
He added: “Until there is a government in Northern Ireland, there is no government in Northern Ireland.”
But Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald welcomed the deal, saying it was “vital for political stability to address the scale of the crisis across our public services”.A protester outside the Larchfield Estate where the DUP is holding a private party meeting, they call on the DUP not to return to Stormont until the Irish Sea Border is removed. Image date: Monday 29 January 2024.
Liam McBurney – PA Image via Getty Images