Northern Politics Update - Power-Sharing Executive Returns to Stormont

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After two years in abeyance, the DUP has finally agreed to accept the democratic outcome of the Assembly elections. With Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill in office as the first-ever Nationalist First Minister, Law and Politics Editor Michael Keating Dake offers a concise analysis with help from our Sports Editor, Oisín Gaffey.

The system of consociational power-sharing, as outlined under the framework of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA), has resumed in the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland. The return of the Executive in Stormont comes after two years of political impasse, a period defined by widespread disruption to public service provision, an increasing cost of living, rising inflation, and mounting public health waiting lists.

The return of the Executive in Stormont comes after two years of political impasse, a period defined by widespread disruption to public service provision, an increasing cost of living, rising inflation, and mounting public health waiting lists. 

Michelle O’Neill of Republican Sinn Féin has taken office as the North’s first-ever Nationalist First-Minister. Her historic appointment is emblematic of the seismic social and political changes that have taken place in the decades following the signing of the GFA.

The University Observer sat down with Oisín Gaffey to discuss these recent political developments. The Belfast-born writer is a Final Year History major, and currently serves as our Sports Editor. Gaffey was asked what he thought about the return of power sharing in Stormont. He explained: “I think it’s about time. You know, it’s been two years too long. The people in the North are really struggling with daily essentials because for the last two years there’s been no effective budget. The Executive has completely refrained from helping over the past two years, so I think it’s about time that they got back to work.” 

Gaffey continued: “Obviously there’s that worry in the back of your mind that they might collapse [Stormont] again, but I’m hopeful that isn’t the case. (...) They’ve got a good financial package behind them from the UK Government. So, overall optimistic, but you know it’s about time.”

The working relationship between the new First and Deputy First Minister was then discussed. Gaffey explained his analysis of the maiden speeches delivered by the two leaders in Stormont. He argued: “I think what Emma [Little-]Pengelly said in her opening speech was that Michelle O’Neill is a Catholic Republican, and Emma Little-Pengelly is a proud Unionist. They’re never going to agree on certain issues. But I think what was positive from Stormont the other day was that they can both agree to put the basics first, and put the ideological prospect of a United Ireland on the back burner.”

Gaffey’s arguments echo those expounded by many leaders across politics, civil society, business, and the media who have called on the two leaders to focus more on the socio-economic issues impacting communities in the North, less on ideological debates regarding the jurisdictional and constitutional future of the island. Gaffey argues: “I think that helping people in a cost-of-living crisis, when there’s been two years of no Government, prioritising day-to-day basics, and GP waiting lists (...) all that stuff, to me, is of more importance than the prospect of Irish unity, for now. I really do think there should be a focus on the here and now, on the day-to-day basics, on bread and butter issues, and that the prospect of Irish unity is pushed down the road a bit further.”

'I really do think there should be a focus on the here and now, on the day-to-day basics, on bread and butter issues, and (...) that the prospect of Irish unity is pushed down the road a bit further.'

The conversation then turned to the impact of Brexit on cross-community and cross-border relations. Gaffey explained his perspective: “I would definitely say that Brexit was a massive failure. Its existence only threatens the Good Friday Agreement and stability in the North. It was a rushed referendum, and the North wasn’t given priority. The issues in the North are the most contentious: there’s technically two countries on the one island with issues that go back hundreds of years. I think Brexit has only inflamed the situation and made things worse.” During this interview, the growth of “third parties” such as the Alliance party, and the impact that the political impasse has had on struggling communities in the North was also discussed. 

As the new power-sharing Executive sets about governing Northern Ireland, challenges and opportunities lie ahead for communities on both sides of the sectarian divide. Brexit, the legacy of historical grievances, demographic changes, and the trauma of the Troubles further complicate the situation. With Michelle O’Neill now in office, the region finds itself at an important juncture. Catholics, once marginalised and discriminated against, are now the majority. Power-sharing has made a tentative return, with a Nationalist at the helm for the first time. All of these developments will play an important role in the future of this shared island.

Editorial Note: The University Observer endeavours to represent a broad and diverse spectrum of views on the complexities of political life on this island. We therefore aim to foster a conducive environment for the promotion of respectful and open dialogue on our pages. As such, we welcome contributions from people of all community backgrounds, and shall always strive to create an atmosphere of tolerance and inclusion. If you would like to share your perspective on the current situation in the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland, please reach out to us at: uo.lawandpolitics@gmail.com.