BELFAST — The Northern Ireland Assembly, a power-sharing experiment designed to consign decades of bloody conflict to history, came crashing down Thursday amid deep pessimism over when it might be revived — if ever.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal for a fourth straight time to appoint a neutral speaker meant the clock officially ran out on what had been a 24-week period to form a new unity government. The outcome, following a debate laced with bitter recriminations, imperils a core achievement of the United States-brokered Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which capped a three-decade conflict over Northern Ireland that left more than 3,600 people dead.
The pro-Brexit DUP insists it won’t end its blockade on power-sharing until Britain abandons EU-required checks on British goods arriving at local ports under the so-called Northern Ireland protocol. That key plank of the United Kingdom’s 2019 Withdrawal Agreement from the EU was designed to avoid even more problematic checks on British goods crossing the land border into EU member Ireland.
By again using its leverage as the largest unionist party to veto progress, the DUP ensured that all 10 remaining caretaker ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive lose their jobs at midnight. The ministers from four parties — among them three DUP members — issued a flurry of ministerial orders in their dying hours of power.
As of Friday, day-to-day governance in Northern Ireland will fall to unelected senior civil servants at those 10 departments, although the U.K. government has yet to grant them sufficient decision-making powers to manage the cost-of-living crisis with no 2023 budget in place.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, an arch-Brexiteer appointed only last month to the Cabinet role, insists he will call a new Stormont election barely six months after the last one — a step that most local parties and seasoned observers view as needlessly divisive and politically pointless. Heaton-Harris is nonetheless widely expected on Friday to announce this election will happen on December 15.
Michelle O’Neill, the Irish republican from Sinn Féin who was supposed to become Northern Ireland’s first minister following the assembly election in May, condemned the obstructionist tactics of the Democratic Unionists and their leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, as “futile, reckless, short-sighted and senseless.”
Referring to Northern Ireland’s pre-conflict past when unionists excluded the Irish nationalist side of the community from government at Stormont, she said: “The DUP want yesterday. It’s no longer available to you.”
Donaldson wasn’t in the chamber because, right after winning an assembly seat in May, he quit to remain an MP at Westminster.
But the DUP’s most recent first minister Paul Givan, who resigned from the top power-sharing post in February as part of his party’s anti-protocol campaign, billed his own party as a principled victim of bullying.
“Progress will not be made by trying to isolate, denigrate and intimidate the Democratic Unionist Party. The barrier to devolution is not the DUP. It’s the Northern Ireland protocol. That’ll be our position after the election irrespective of the outcome,” Givan said.
Givan — who in a recent POLITICO interview outlined hopes that an election rerun could allow the DUP to reclaim electoral ground lost in May to Sinn Féin — said a stronger anti-protocol vote in December would “send a clear message to the European Union. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and we will have our place within that union fully respected.”
Moderate and middle-ground leaders, whose party forebears championed the historic compromises achieved on Good Friday nearly a quarter-century ago, said the DUP had never truly accepted that peace plan — and appeared finally to have shattered its fragile cornerstone.
Matthew O’Toole, Stormont leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a primary architect of the Good Friday deal, told reporters that Thursday’s debate “felt like a wake for power-sharing. It was depressing and shameful.”
Inside the chamber, he warned the DUP lawmakers they were making “a huge strategic error.”
While attempting to force others “to live amid the ruins” of their own “self-destructive urges,” O’Toole said, the Democratic Unionists instead were spurring moderates on both sides of the community to consider a future in a united Ireland outside the U.K. and back inside the EU.
The caretaker Justice Minister Naomi Long, leader of the anti-sectarian Alliance Party that made strong gains in May’s election, appealed to Heaton-Harris to do what previous secretaries of state repeatedly did to protect power-sharing — change Stormont’s legal framework at the eleventh hour to avoid any immediate collapse.
“The solution to the problem, as I set out clearly to the secretary of state last night, is this,” she said. “Emergency legislation in Westminster to suspend these institutions until the negotiations between the EU and the U.K. government can reach a conclusion, potentially within weeks.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the number of weeks for which Northern Ireland had not been able to form a new unity government.