Power sharing resumed in Northern Ireland


Michelle O' Neill becomes Northern Ireland's first minister, making history as the first nationalist, republican and Catholic to hold the role

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By Isobel Moore

HISTORY WAS MADE on 3 February 2024, with Michelle O’Neill becoming Northern Ireland’s first Irish nationalist, republican and Catholic to hold the title of first minister. This comes two years after the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP)boycott of power sharing. For this period, the region was left without power-sharing administration amidst on-going cost of living and public health system concerns. As a main unionist party, the DUP is legally essential to decisions going ahead in Stormont.
The party, and its 130 member executive, ended its boycott after long-running post-Brexit trade disputes with the UK. The UK promised to further remove checks on goods remaining in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Protocol was what initiated a lot of these disputes, former UK prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to this, with checks on goods at the border as Northern Ireland continued to do trade within the EU’s single market for goods. This effectively created a sea border, drawing a wedge between the UK and Northern Ireland.
The Windsor Framework also raised concerns. This was the first agreement with the EU, coming into force in January 2021,regarding resolving the trade conflict between UK and Northern Ireland. However ,checks on goods at the border, and goods which stayed in Northern Ireland were contentious and initiated the DUP’s boycott. This agreement was revamped two years later, and al-lowed more flexibility with the implementation of two lanes: a green lane, for goods remaining in Northern Ireland, and a red lane, for goods being sent to the EU.
The new trade deal between the UK and the unionists, ‘Safe guarding the Union’, implemented early this year, further reduces checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales. There is no custom declaration needed for selling these goods within the country. Presented to parliament by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, this deal also introduced Intr atrade UK, modelled on Intra trade Ireland ,promoting small businesses and the scrapping of a Scotland border control plan which would have provided further controversy for Northern Ireland. This new deal clears the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly to meet again after two years.
To resume the Northern Ireland Assembly post-boycott, Edwin Poots was designated the role as a neutral speaker and DUP politician Emma Little-Pengelly was assigned her role as deputy first minister. Both moves had been previously blocked seven times by the DUP since Sinn Féin’s win against them in the May 2022 election. Sinn Féin became Stormont’s biggest party after this, with Michelle O’Neill only assuming the role in February of this year given the devolved nature of Northern Ireland’s government for two years. Power sharing was created in1998, from the Good Friday Agreement, and at the same time, Michelle O’Neill joined Sinn Féin. After Martin McGuinness’ resignation, she became deputy first minister of the party and later first minister. Throughout her career, she has been embroiled in controversy over her actions: addressing the killing of IRA men, her attendance at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey during Covid-19 and her expression that there was “no alternative” to IRA violence on a podcast.
However, the history-making first minister is willing to cooperate and work more with the unionists, claiming that more Northern Irish leaders must do the same. Historically, Stormont has faced much upheaval due to power-sharing, with five suspensions occurring since it was implemented. However, the recent two-year suspension of power-sharing is not the longest Northern Ireland has gone with having a devolved government as between 2002 to 2004, unionist parties withdrew after allegations of intelligence gathering for the Irish Republican Army(IRA.) However, Michelle O’Neill wants to keep in mind a representation of both republican and unionist interests, mentioning recently her attendance at the Queen’s funeral and King’s coronation as symbolic efforts of this. Even with her efforts to achieve peaceful relations going forward, many are still adjusting to this historic event. Hard-line unionists have fiercely criticised the DUP’s decision with party leader Jeffrey Donaldson receiving threats due to this. Still, power-sharing questions arise of the future of Northern Ireland’s relation-ship with the EU and what the ‘Safe-guarding the Union’ deal means for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland going forward.