New election looms in Northern Ireland amid political deadlock

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By Euronews  with AP
Chris Heaton-Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, arrives for a Cabinet meeting held by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, arrives for a Cabinet meeting held by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Northern Ireland politicians are set to make a last-ditch attempt on Thursday to break a political impasse triggered by power sharing tensions and lingering issues related to Brexit.

If they fail, the UK government will call a new election for Northern Ireland on Friday.

Lingering divisions

The crisis comes at a time of change in Northern Ireland, which has been led by Protestant unionists loyal to the United Kingdom since its formation in 1921.

Members of the Assembly are meeting to try to elect a speaker, the first step toward restoring a power-sharing government that has been on hold since elections in May, when Sinn Fein — which seeks Northern Ireland's union with Ireland — became the largest party in the 90-seat assembly. This entitled the party to appoint the new first minister.

However, the main British unionist body, the Democratic Unionist Party, which came second in May’s elections, has said it will veto the move to reestablish the executive as part of its protest over post-Brexit customs checks.

Border tensions

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a border with an EU member – Ireland. When Britain left the bloc in 2020, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks, with an open border a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, there are now checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

This has triggered a political crisis, with unionist politicians refusing to form a government because they see the checks as undermining their British identity and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

The DUP says that the trade rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, are destabilising Northern Ireland’s peace agreement, which relies on support from both unionist and nationalist communities.

However, while the DUP wants the protocol scrapped, most other parties in Northern Ireland want to keep it, with tweaks to ease the burden on businesses.

New executive or new elections

If no executive is in place by early Friday, new elections will be called, which could break the political deadlock but would create fresh issues.

“I have consistently been clear that if the executive is not formed by October 28, I will call an election,” the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said.

“Time is running out, and people in Northern Ireland deserve locally elected decision-makers and an executive who can respond to the issues facing people, families and communities across Northern Ireland during this challenging time,” he added.