BELFAST — Results from the Northern Ireland Assembly election have answered a key post-Brexit question: Most lawmakers at Stormont in Belfast want the trade protocol to stay, not go.
This matters because the protocol — a part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement that the U.K. government has spent the past year refusing to implement in full and threatening to disrupt further — contains an easily misunderstood “consent” section.
At first glance, it gives the newly elected assembly a bona-fide chance in 2024 to shoot the whole thing down.
But in reality, the results from Thursday’s election mean there’s no longer any chance this can happen. The new 90-seat assembly will have no more than 37 unionist members hostile to the protocol. Unionists lost three seats and are now at least nine short of the bare majority needed.
The protocol text does grant Stormont lawmakers the theoretical power to vote in 2024 to dump the treaty, which left Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods when the rest of the U.K. exited at the start of 2021. This arrangement has required new customs and sanitary checks on British goods when they arrive at Northern Ireland’s ports, not when they cross the land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Ever since that agreement, unionists who loathe the protocol’s creation of a so-called “Irish Sea border” within the U.K. have pointed hopefully to 2024 as the moment when they could lawfully torpedo the deal. But their “consent” is not required. Here’s why.
“Consent” in the power-sharing politics of Northern Ireland is universally understood to mean that both sides of the assembly — the British unionist and Irish nationalist blocs — must agree to key decisions. Either side of the house can veto them.
The U.S.-brokered Good Friday agreement of 1998 proposed this finely balanced compromise as essential to fostering peace following a three-decade conflict over the U.K. region that left more than 3,600 dead.
Cross-community consent for key decisions was designed to ensure that neither side of the house could impose its will on the other — a fundamental reassurance in a Northern Ireland that, in the first half-century of its existence, was run solely by unionists and discriminated against its Irish Catholic minority in employment, housing and electoral rights.
Yet this high bar of “consent” has made sustaining such mandatory coalitions of natural enemies exceptionally difficult.
In the 24 years since the Good Friday breakthrough, unionists and nationalists have taken turns pulling the plug on power-sharing, most recently in 2017 when the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin walked out for three years over still-unsettled disputes with their supposed Democratic Unionist partners.
Northern Ireland political institutions often have been left in caretaker hands with appointed mandarins, not elected officials, in charge. Even today, the outgoing government is crippled by the Democratic Unionists’ pre-election decision to abandon the top post of first minister, rendering any decisions that require full executive approval impossible.
Mindful of this chronic dysfunction, the London and Brussels technocrats who drafted the protocol understood that their painstakingly negotiated treaty shouldn’t be left vulnerable to rejection by either side. They recognized that Brexit itself had already trampled over the concept of “consent” in Northern Ireland, where 56 percent of voters, including the overwhelming majority on the Irish nationalist side, had rejected it in the 2016 referendum.
To defuse expected unionist opposition, Article 18 of the protocol envisioned that Stormont would be asked to demonstrate “democratic consent” in 2024 over the continued operation of EU import controls on British goods. But that Article 18 bills cross-community backing in Belfast as an optional extra — nice but not essential. To pass, the vote would require only a simple majority enabling one side to outvote the other: an everyday occurrence in Westminster; the stuff of sectarian spirals in Belfast.
The newly elected assembly is even more pro-protocol than the previous one. While the outgoing assembly elected in 2017 had 40 unionists, six short of a majority, the new grouping retains only 37.
Even that dwindling total misleads. Lawmakers from the moderate Ulster Unionist Party, which opposed Brexit, aren’t committed to joining the Democratic Unionists in any anti-protocol vote.
This means, if a Stormont vote is ever taken under the conditions laid out in the protocol treaty, the unionists will lose it. Irish nationalists (35 seats) and pro-EU politicians from the surging cross-community Alliance Party (17 seats) constitute an unassailable pro-protocol majority.
Reflecting his party’s weakened but still critical role as the largest unionist party, Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned Saturday that the DUP would use the cross-community consent rule to block formation of a new government. Donaldson said he would relent only if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson first meets DUP demands to stop EU checks at the local ports.
“The prime minister and the government need to act on this,” Donaldson said. “If he doesn’t deliver, he must recognize that means perpetual political instability.”