As the most historically tumultuous region of the United Kingdom, the other member states hold their breath in anticipation whenever a first minister resigns in Northern Ireland. Paul Givan, who, after a period of internal DUP political issues, replaced Arlene Foster as the first minister in 2020, has since stepped down as the first minister in protest against the national UK government’s Northern Ireland protocol. It spells for fresh issues in Northern Ireland, where political tensions have been rising again in recent years. One can see why the office of Northern Ireland secretary was reserved almost exclusively for Thatcher’s least favourite ministers, such as Jim Prior.
The main opposition to the DUP in Stormont, Sinn Fein, has called for early elections over this issue. As per usual, they have been highly critical of the DUP, claiming the resignation is an attempt to stir up unionist sentiments. The deputy first minister, Michelle O’ Neill of Sinn Fein, is likely to be somewhat peeved about Givan’s resignation, as the fact that the office of first and deputy first minister are conjoined will mean she too must resign. However, she will likely continue in the role under Givan’s replacement, as she served as deputy leader under Foster as well.
Sinn Fein may get the early elections they want (this will likely give them some shock as they are not used to getting what they want.) The two parties previously have seven days to nominate successors, or it will by automation fall to the Northern Ireland secretary to set new dates for elections. However, following the three-year deadlock only ending in 2020, it was agreed in Westminster that such a time should be extended to avoid a repeat so Stormont may sit for another six weeks or possibly even longer. They will, as Belgium will testify, find it difficult to achieve anything without the executive, and so early elections may be preferable if the parties cannot find grounds to agree.
Such a stalemate may wreak havoc, as the draft of the budget would usually be presented by the first minister, and so Northern Ireland can look forward to their economic situation going from pretty bad to practically dire. The departments will have no opportunity to plan their budgets for the next three years, which in times of strife such as now will prove a detrimental handicap. Furthermore, with no executive, departments will not be able to put forwards any new legislation, but the current agenda will be allowed safe (not safe but that is the saying) passage through Stormont.
In terms of COVID, the department of health in Northern Ireland will not be handicapped from taking decisions. Given how long stalemates in Northern Ireland have taken to play out in the past, COVID may be an issue of the long-lost past before a new executive is agreed upon.
There is an election for Stormont this year in May. If the results prove decisive, a new executive may not be far away. It's unclear who is likely to be at the head of a new administration, Sinn Fein is currently doing well in the polls, but unionists have historically always done well in Northern Ireland, having held the office of the first minister since its creation in 1998 after the Good Friday agreement. On the other hand, since ditching Gerry Adams as a leader, who was a walking talking image problem for them, Sinn Fein has had somewhat of a surge in the republic. Perhaps they could look forward to achieving the same in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland, especially with the issues of Brexit, will likely be an eternal issue. The executive’s office, meant to be a sign of hope for a people desperately in need of hope, has frequently let down the people of Northern Ireland. The unwillingness to compromise and co-operate has proved time and time again to fail in bringing harmony and unity. The elections may help the situation, at least I hope.
Written by Adam Caudle
Research compiled by Kristina Njeru