How the peace process returned to Northern Ireland

Michelle O'Neill, an Irish republican, becomes Northern Ireland's first ever nationalist first minister

Michelle O'Neill became Northern Ireland's first ever nationalist first minister on Saturday. PA
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Northern Ireland's power-sharing government returned to work after a two-year impasse on Saturday, with Michelle O'Neill making history as its first ever leader from the Irish republican side.

Ms O'Neill took office as First Minister after the unionist camp agreed to end a two-year boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Unionist Emma Little-Pengelly becomes Deputy First Minister.

The two roles are functionally equal, but the Catholic Ms O'Neill's appointment marks a symbolic moment in the 103-year history of Northern Ireland, where pro-British Protestants once held a monopoly on power.

“That such a day would ever come would have been unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generation,” Ms O'Neill said as she vowed to be a “first minister for all”.

“To all of you who are British and unionist: your national identity, culture and traditions are important to me,” she said. “Our allegiances are equally legitimate. Let’s walk this two-way street and meet one another halfway.”

Ms O'Neill's nationalist Sinn Fein party topped the poll for the first time in a 2022 election, but the assembly is only now convening after the Democratic Unionist Party agreed to resume co-operation.

There have been several such gaps since the power-sharing regime was set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The UK government this week struck a deal with the DUP on post-Brexit trade rules, a prime grievance for the unionists, to allow Northern Ireland's institutions to resume work.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has vowed to hold the UK government's “feet to the fire” on the deal, which he admitted he does not fully trust.

Ms Little-Pengelly called on politicians to be a “source of hope” by working together on everyday issues, even though she and Ms O'Neill “will never agree” on Northern Ireland's constitutional future.

“Despite our often troubled history and divisions of the past, I know that we have incredible potential,” she said.

What is power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing is mandatory among all political parties in Northern Ireland due to its complicated political history that began in 1921, when the island of Ireland was split in two.

In the 1960s, violence erupted between Catholics, a minority of the population who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, and the majority Protestants wanted to remain part of the UK.

The Troubles, as the period was known, ended in 1998 as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, which established Northern Ireland’s power-sharing political system.

Under the terms of the agreement, government must include representatives from parties that want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland, known as nationalists, and those which want to remain part of the UK, known as unionists.

Under the system, the most important jobs at Stormont must be held by both parties, so the first minister and deputy first minister are from different parties, but both hold equal power.

If one of them resigns, the other is also required to, which happened when Paul Givan of the DUP resigned as first minister, forcing Sinn Fein's Ms O'Neill to also step down.

Cabinets are also made up of both unionist and nationalist parties.

The number of unionist and nationalist ministers appointed to the Executive, the administrative branch of the legislature, is based on the proportion of seats a party wins in the election.

Some decisions need cross-community support.

When did power-sharing break down?

It has happened several times, but the latest time was in February 2022 and was a result of disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol and resulted in Mr Givan resigning in protest against checks on British goods in the Irish Sea as a result of Brexit.

The agreement moved many of the EU checks that should have taken place at the land border with Ireland, an EU member, to the Irish Sea.

That effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's single market and customs union – meaning that goods coming in from elsewhere in the UK are treated as if they are from a foreign country.

That was unacceptable to the DUP, which argued it undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

After Mr Givan’s resignation, the party’s leader, Sir Jeffrey, said he had warned the British government that it would quit the Executive if it did not eliminate the checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

How was power-sharing restored?

A new agreement has been reached which helps address the DUP’s concerns.

Last year, the UK and EU agreed on the Windsor Framework, which preserves what experts call Northern Ireland’s unconditional and unfettered access to Great Britain, their most important market, while maintaining access to the entire EU market.

At the core of the deal was the creation of a new system for the flow of goods.

Anything destined for Northern Ireland was to travel there as part of a “green lane”, with significantly fewer checks. Anything that could cross the border and enter the EU’s single market was to travel through a separate red lane.

The new agreement commits to replacing the Windsor Framework's green lane process at Northern Ireland ports, which requires percentages of goods to be checked as they arrive from Great Britain, with a “UK internal market system” that will govern the movement of goods that remain within the UK.

An “internal market guarantee” ensures at least 80 per cent of GB-NI goods enter this UK internal market system.

Checks would still be carried out but on a risk-based/intelligence-led model to combat illegality and disease, rather than routine stops of disembarking lorries.

And businesses using the internal market system would also need to be signed up to a trusted trader scheme.

The deal has effectively removed the so-called Irish Sea border for goods moving from Great Britain to, and staying in, Northern Ireland.

Who opposes the relaunch?

Parliamentary debate on the two motions on Thursday laid bare the divisions at the very top of the DUP, with senior party members Lord Dodds and Sammy Wilson voicing opposition to the proposals, albeit both stopped short of criticising their leader.

While Sir Jeffrey has secured the backing of a majority of his party colleagues to accept the deal, there are those within the DUP who remain deeply sceptical of the proposed agreement to restore power-sharing.

“There is undoubtedly a trust issue here,” the DUP leader told BBC Radio Ulster on Friday.

“I will hold the government's feet to the fire, there are new mechanisms. I'm not just relying on the UK government.”

Sir Jeffrey is also facing opposition outside his party.

About 120 unionists and loyalists opposed to the deal gathered at a meeting in Moygashel Orange Hall in County Tyrone on Thursday night.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister told the meeting that Northern Ireland remained a “colony” because it had to accept economic laws made by the EU while loyalist activist Jamie Bryson said the Irish Sea trading border remained.

However, the DUP leader was given a significant boost on Friday when a high-profile Orange Order chief declared his personal support for the package.

Grand Secretary of the Orange Order Mervyn Gibson, writing in The Belfast Telegraph, said while the deal was not perfect, it was a “win for unionist determination and unity, and needs to be accepted as such”.

Updated: February 03, 2024, 3:40 PM