The Republican Nationalist Sinn Fein is the strongest political force in the Northern Ireland parliament after the election. In doing so, Sinn Fein defeated the pro-British Unionists who had ruled Northern Ireland since its founding more than 100 years ago. The victory of the nationalists is historical and symbolic.
Bombs are no longer exploding in Belfast. However, the echo of the bloody past could still be heard around every corner. A quarter of a century after the Good Friday Peace Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a divided country. Brexit has reopened old differences. Sinn Fein’s electoral victory will not make everyday political life easier.
Trade unionists are fighting back
So far, pro-British unionists have not been able to decide whether they will become part of the government in the future. The head of the largest unionist party, Sir Geoffrey Donaldson, said a few days ago that the Northern Ireland Protocol should first be abolished. This rejection is more than just background noise. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement states that the two most powerful parties must rule together.
The combined power of unionists and nationalists makes the prime minister no more powerful than his deputy. The British “Economist” recently described the balanced model of government in a somewhat polemical way: “The First Minister of Northern Ireland cannot even order pizza without the consent of his deputy.”
With the unionists dismissed, the government in Belfast was virtually unable to act. The Northern Ireland Protocol was established to prevent a difficult border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit, thus preserving the fragile peace on the island of Ireland. However, unionists feel cut off from the mother country by the newly established customs border in the Irish Sea.
High unemployment and high prices
The border may be an insult to their identity, but the real requirements of daily life differ in Northern Ireland. Whether they are Catholic or Protestant, Northern Ireland suffers from high energy and food prices. A quarter of the population is unemployed. Nowhere in the UK are National Health Service (NHS) waiting lists waiting any longer than in Northern Ireland. On average, it takes a Northern Irish man a full year to see a specialist. These are the challenges that the new government will face.
During the election campaign, Sinn Féin promised to take care of exactly these problems. This would not be easy if the unionists refused to cooperate, and took the whole of Northern Irish society into crippled hostages.
UK Reporter, SRF
Patrick Folser has been working in London as a British correspondent for SRF since the end of 2019. Folser was a correspondent for Africa from 2011 to 2017 and lived with his family in Nairobi. Then he headed the external department of SRF Radio in Bern.
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