Northern Ireland Likely to Hold New Election After Failing to Form a Government

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LONDON — Voters in Northern Ireland made history in May when they turned the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, into the largest in the North. Now, they are likely to have to go back to the polls after the main pro-unionist party paralyzed the power-sharing government by refusing to take part in it.

Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, is expected to announce on Friday that a new election would be held, possibly on Dec. 15, following six months of fruitless efforts to convene the assembly at the Stormont Parliament in Belfast. The deadline for forming a government expired at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

It is not the first time that Northern Ireland’s experiment in power sharing has broken down. The assembly was suspended from 2002 to 2007 and again from 2017 to 2020. This time, the prospects for a swift resolution seem bleak, with Northern Ireland caught up in a larger standoff over trade between Britain and the European Union.

Sinn Fein’s victory in May was a watershed in Northern Ireland’s politics, elevating a nationalist party that many still associate with paramilitary violence to leadership in the territory. It entitled Sinn Fein to name Michelle O’Neill, its leader, to the post of first minister in the government, reflecting its status as the party with the most seats in the assembly.

But on Thursday, the parties failed in a last-gasp effort to elect a speaker of the assembly, which would have cleared the way to appoint ministers to run the government. Ms. O’Neill criticized the unionists for a “failure of leadership,” after they refused to nominate ministers or a speaker.

Political analysts predicted that Sinn Fein could expand its two-seat advantage over its main rival — the Democratic Unionist Party, or D.U.P. — by drawing voters who are frustrated by the breakdown of the government and blame the D.U.P., which has refused to take part until Britain overhauls the trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

But the Democratic Unionists might pick up a seat or two as well by consolidating the unionist vote. These people favor the North remaining part of the United Kingdom but had split their votes between three competing unionist parties. The D.U.P.’s attacks on the trade rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, have united and hardened opposition to it within the unionist population.

Adding to the anger, Sinn Fein officials have said that because of the changed political landscape, the Irish Republic should have a consultative role in running Northern Ireland, along with Britain, if the deadlock over a power-sharing government cannot be broken. The British government said it was not considering “joint authority” over the North, though it is wary of a return to direct rule.

While the D.U.P. is unlikely to overtake Sinn Fein, analysts said, it may shore up what had been an eroding position. That would vindicate the party’s hard-line strategy, analysts said, and give it little incentive to return to government if Britain struck a compromise with the European Union on the protocol.

“Strong unionists are very united on the idea that the protocol must be scrapped,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast. “My worry is that even if the U.K. and E.U. come up with an agreement on the protocol, it will be very difficult for that agreement to satisfy the unionists.

Mr. Heaton-Harris, who was reappointed Northern Ireland secretary this week by Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has said he would prefer to call a new election rather than try to delay it or pass legislation in the British Parliament.

It was shaping up as an early foreign policy headache for Mr. Sunak, who has spoken of wanting to reset relations between Britain and the European Union. Tensions over trade in Northern Ireland have simmered since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and rose significantly in June after his predecessor, Liz Truss, who was foreign secretary at the time, introduced legislation that would unilaterally overturn parts of the protocol. Boris Johnson, who was then prime minister, regularly reinforced that position.

Though Mr. Sunak said he was committed to getting that bill through Parliament, some analysts said they believed he would take a more pragmatic approach with Brussels, calculating that Britain cannot afford a trade war with the European Union at a time when its economy is grappling with double-digit inflation and a looming recession.

The result of a painstaking negotiation between London and Brussels, the protocol was meant to account for the hybrid status of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but shares an open border with neighboring Ireland, a member of the European Union. To keep that border open, Mr. Johnson had accepted checks on goods flowing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.

Unionists complain that the checks have added onerous layers of bureaucracy to trade and driven a wedge between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom. For months, Britain has tried to renegotiate the rules with European officials to make them less cumbersome. But unionists want the protocol essentially swept away, which Brussels is certain to reject on the grounds that it would threaten the single market.

“The D.U.P. and Sinn Fein should both gain seats” in the next election, said David Campbell, the chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents pro-union paramilitary groups that vehemently oppose the protocol. “Hard to tell which comes out on top. The real problem is how to resolve problems after.”

For Sinn Fein, which favors the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, the paralysis confronts it with a decision: whether to give up on power sharing, which was enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence, and focus its energies on uniting North and South.

“If the sense is the D.U.P. is against the Good Friday Agreement,” Professor Hayward said, “there is a certain rationale for the Sinn Fein to go for their alternative.”


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