The Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont is the devolved legislative power in the area which has not sat since March 2017. The power-sharing consensus within the government fell after a disagreement between the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and the Sinn Fein Party. This collapse of the legislature had many different elements, but the final straw was when the DUP’s First Minister Arlene Foster was accused of partaking in “cash for ash scandal”. The unionist party believes it did not act wrongly when it backed a scheme encouraging farmers to use wood burning stoves, but it was believed to be incredibly costly for the general public, and so an inquiry was launched. The Sinn Fein First Minister Martin McGuiness then left his job as a result, leading to the collapse of the shared government.
Yet, Northern Ireland is a vital part of the Brexit negotiations because of the tension surrounding the land border with the Republic of Ireland.
The EU – including the Republic of Ireland – would like to keep Theresa May’s proposal of a temporary Northern Ireland backstop on the negotiation table. This would mean Northern Ireland was still in the customs union and would have to obey some of the rules of the Single Market, but the trading bloc believes this is the only plausible solution which will avoid violence returning to the Irish border and compromise the Good Friday agreement.
However some Brexiteers, including the DUP, believe this would defeat the point of Brexit, as part of the UK would still be in the EU. The backstop would also mean checks on goods would have to be carried out in the Irish sea, effectively separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
In the Government’s ‘No-Deal Readiness Report’ published this week, No.10 revealed how the absence of an executive power in Northern Ireland has impacted Brexit negotiations.
It stated: “The UK Government’s key priority in Northern Ireland is the restoration of devolution.
Michel Barnier and Michael Gove (Image: GETTY)
Arlene Foster, the First Minister for the DUP (Image: GETTY)
“The UK Government recognises that the continuing absence of Ministerial decision-making in Northern Ireland has hampered preparations and will critically limit the ability of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to implement contingency plans and manage no-deal on a day-to-day basis.”
Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Civil Service has taken on more responsibility.
The report said: “Although the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) can take some limited decisions, this is insufficient to manage leaving without a deal.
“The best way to ensure that effective governance arrangements are in place is through restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive.”
The UK is dependent on Northern Ireland to get a deal because of the “Stormont lock” – this is the agreement the DUP reached with former Prime Minister Theresa May, whereby Stormont as a whole – not just the DUP – would have to vote on whether it should stay in the EU’s customs zone and vote again on the matter every four years.
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Sinn Fein and the DUP have not worked together in government since 2017 (Image: GETTY)