The Rundown Podcast: Protocol & Power Struggle, What's Next For Northern Ireland?
Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Conservative MP Julian Smith, and Irish Times columnist Finn McRedmond join PoliticsHome’s Alain Tolhurst and Adam Payne on this week’s episode of The Rundown to unpack a seismic week in Northern Irish politics, which looks likely to amp up further as the UK threatens to rip up the contentious protocol.
Sinn Fein became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the very first time after last week's historic election, giving them the right to hold the post of First Minister.
On this week's episode, we discuss what this means for the future of the union, as well as for the power-sharing executive, with second largest party the DUP currently threatening to prevent a government being formed.
The DUP campaigned on opposing to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, which the UK government is looking increasingly likely to scrap without consent from the EU.
The Government's chief law officer, Attorney General Suella Braverman, has reportedly received legal advice that it would be lawful to override parts of the treaty signed with the EU, and calls between the UK’s Brexit negotiator Liz Truss and her Brussels counterpart Maros Sefcovic have been described by officials as “tetchy”.
With tensions running high, Smith urged Truss to hold “rapid discussions with the EU to try to find solutions”, and called for the protocol to be amended around divergence and regulatory issues.
He told The Rundown a compromise must be found that is acceptable to the DUP so they can be “shunted back into power”.
If no cross-party executive is formed in Stormont after 24 weeks, another election would be held, but Smith did not believe such an outcome would be tolerated in the province, and the UK and EU therefore needed to reach an agreement on the protocol that the DUP and Northern Irish people alike would find acceptable.
"I don't think the Northern Ireland electorate and voters are going to stand for the £6.7million pounds a year in MLA [Members of the Legislative Assembly] salaries being shelled out during a cost of living crisis," he said.
“There is the need for the protocol to be sorted, but time is of the essence and they need to get back to work.”
He also said many businesses “like the fact that Northern Ireland faces both ways,” and that there had been “quite a lot of inward investment as a result of the protocol”.
Smith, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary from 2019-2020, warned that some figures in Westminster are using the province for their own agendas as the government moves closer to unilateral action on the protocol.
McRedmond said the Irish government is also “not necessarily convinced that Boris Johnson is playing straight back with them when it comes to the protocol and the negotiations between Johnson and his team and the European Union”.
She said a concession could be made to the DUP on titles in the executive as well to try and get the unionist party on side.
Having been elected as Northern Ireland's second largest party, the DUP are only entitled to fill the position of deputy first minister, a role which they are unaccustomed to, even though both the first minister and deputy have the same exact powers constitutionally.
Redmond wondered if Sinn Fein agreed to allow the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to be first minister as well as their leader Michelle O’Neill, would “that look like a victory that will allow him give him political wiggle room to say it's all fine?”.
As a nationalist party, Sinn Fein is explicit in their desire for a border poll on the reunification of Ireland, although they did not make the issue a central tenet of their recent election campaign.
Smith believed those behind unionism should still be “pretty confident” despite Sinn Fein's election.
“I genuinely think [unionists] want to get back into power," he said.
“So I think the biggest issue is the protocol. I think when you open up these other issues, they become problematic because it's difficult to get a majority of support.
“Whilst there may need to be discussion about elements of the rules around power sharing, or the Good Friday Agreement, in the fullness of time, doing that, once you've just had an election result is always going to be very tricky.”
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