BELFAST — When is a 62-25 parliamentary vote not good enough for victory? When it’s the Northern Ireland Assembly and the outnumbered Democratic Unionists wield their veto on power-sharing.
To the undisguised fury of other politicians, Northern Ireland’s main pro-Brexit party blocked the appointment Friday of an assembly speaker. That act of obstruction means the newly elected legislature cannot operate — and in turn cannot form a cross-community government, a central plank of the U.K. region’s 1998 peace deal.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will wade into the dispute on a Belfast visit Monday, when he’s expected to address Democratic Unionist demands to suspend or scrap the U.K.’s painstakingly negotiated post-Brexit trade protocol with the EU.
While the Democratic Unionists are hoping that Johnson is riding to their rescue, other parties who opposed Brexit fear he’s likely to make matters worse.
They broadly see the protocol’s requirement for EU checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports as necessary to keep trade and movement barrier-free along the meandering 300-mile border with the neighboring Republic of Ireland.
Over the past year the U.K. government has repeatedly postponed many checks and goods restrictions required under the protocol. Johnson often voices sympathy with the DUP’s demand to stop all checks on goods staying in Northern Ireland. Until now he has not followed through on threats to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, which permits either the U.K. or EU to suspend its enforcement in exceptional circumstances.
“The ball is firmly at the foot of the government. It is for the prime minister now to outline what he intends to do,” said DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson in the Great Hall at Stormont, the assembly headquarters on a hill overlooking Belfast.
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill, whose Irish republican party overtook the DUP for the first time in last week’s assembly election, said she planned to tell Johnson he must start supporting the majority of people who accept the protocol, not the minority trying to wreck it.
“I intend to put it to him directly that he needs to stop pandering to the DUP. They’re playing a game of chicken with the European Commission right now and we’re caught in the middle,” said O’Neill, who is supposed to become Northern Ireland’s next first minister — if the DUP agrees to share power in a diminished role.
If the protocol deadlock can ever be broken, the next Northern Ireland administration could be a three-party affair combining Sinn Féin, the DUP and the center-ground Alliance Party, which more than doubled its seats in the election. Many of its gains came at the expense of two other moderate parties: the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Féin’s moderate rival for Irish nationalist votes, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
When the SDLP nominated its most veteran lawmaker, Patsy McGlone, as speaker, he won support from all 34 nationalist lawmakers, all 17 Alliance members, a lone socialist and even 10 unionists.
That still wasn’t enough to overcome the DUP’s 25 members. Under power-sharing rules revised by the British government in February, either the DUP or Sinn Féin can legally block government formation for the next six months, if not longer.
Alliance leader Naomi Long excoriated the DUP for showing up Friday to sign the members’ register — an act that will allow them to start collecting £55,000 base salaries despite blocking the assembly’s operation — as “a slap in the face for every family that struggles to make ends meet, for every person who sits on waiting lists.”
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, who takes a more nuanced view of the protocol and supports how it allows Northern Irish manufacturers to export barrier-free to the EU, accused the DUP of silencing Stormont when its lawmakers must agree to spend more on what are the most overwhelmed health services in the U.K.
Northern Ireland society is “screaming for help,” Beattie said, “and we will be silent.”