Office sharing in Northern Ireland

The accession of Michelle O’Neill to First Minister of Northern Ireland is a significant change in Northern Irish affairs.

Sinn Fein have long maintained that the First and Deputy First ministers are co-equal, and the Good Friday Agreement, which cements national identities into the constitution of the statelet, envisages a permanent diarchy between Unionists and Nationalists . But, this is the first time since the foundation of Northern Ireland 102 years ago, that a non-unionist politician is, at the very least, first among equals.

This is not an open-and-shut situation of demographic victory looming for Nationalists: Unionist parties got marginally more votes than a notional Nationalist bloc; and the cross- community Alliance Party – which counts as neither – saw its vote-share increase as it gained 9 seats, giving it 17 in the 90-seat Assembly. Sinn Fein themselves could only claim 29 percent of the vote, but they are very much the largest party in the Six Counties.

The largest Unionist Party, the DUP, had been using the Good Friday Agreement to stall the creation of the new Executive following the 2023 elections, by refusing to nominate a Deputy First Minister. This was rump Unionism flexing its muscles, and demanding to meet the government in Westminster to show who, despite the ballots, is really in charge. Their nominal complaint was the Northern Ireland Protocol, which imposes some customs controls between Ulster and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Indeed, as our pamphlet Ireland Past Present and Future  notes, much of the tension behind the various conflicts was very much over the question of trade barriers and tariffs:

‘Towards the end of the nineteenth century the southern capitalists and the Irish Nationalist Party were becoming increasingly voluble about ‘English and other foreign capitalists squeezing out the home manufacturer and producer’ – an emotive distinction between the ‘foreign’ and home-based exploiters, despite the fact that the latter, due to their fledgling status, were, if anything, even more rapacious than the former.’


‘By the time the southern capitalists found the strength and influence of political assertiveness, the friction between the Ulster capitalist class and its English counterpart had largely passed. Ulster was virtually integrated into the British economy, dependent on its economic link with Britain for much of its raw materials and its market – not only on the British mainland but, under the system of Imperial Preference, throughout the colonies. There was no talk now of independence: Ulster was soundly British! This was the patriotism of the northern capitalists; and their pensioned political hacks would rummage the cesspits of religious bigotry and hatred to ensure that the working class got the message.’

What the DUP got
What the DUP won from the UK government was a Command Paper that affirmed that Ulster remains integrally part of the UK single market, and mitigates some of the effects of the Northern Ireland Protocol (but not all of them, checks remain, and EU law continues to apply, but democratic assent of the Northern Ireland Assembly is required). The agreement also creates: ‘A new legal duty for ministers when introducing primary legislation to consider whether it would affect trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK because it would diverge from EU rules as applicable in Northern Ireland’ (The Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework House of Commons Research paper) meaning EU law will continue to be implemented across the UK, except on the same terms that a toddler accepts their bedtime because they want to, not because they were told to.

The economy of Northern Ireland is largely agricultural, its manufacturing base has diminished significantly from the days when the shipyards dominated: but substantial engineering and manufacturing remains, so maintaining access to UK markets and seeing off EU competitors will be important for many.

Also, we need to be clear, that the infrastructure of Unionism, those ‘pensioned political hacks’ means that the largely symbolic warm words about Ulster remaining British remain important; many people owe their position of influence to that story (just as much as many pensioned political hacks in the Nationalist movement do to the counter-story). The economic needs of Northern Irish capitalists do not immediately translate into political policy, but have to move through the political weeds of a century of conflict and sectarian domination.

O’Neill predicts a border poll by 2030. And, indeed, the Good Friday Agreement does commit the Westminster Government to hold one when there is good evidence that there would be a yes vote for reunification. We can confidently predict a degree of Nelsonian blindness on this matter, and although the courts could be called upon to intervene, they are unlikely to do so on what is quintessentially a political question.

There are signs that an incoming Labour government would be no more willing to call a referendum than the current Tory administration, with Labour spokespeople waffling round what their position would be on any such poll – fully aware that their position in Scotland is for the Union, and any change for Northern Ireland would likely ripple over the sea for new calls for Scottish independence.

Significantly, the UK government has argued that, although the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to call a referendum on independence (that power is firmly reserved to Westminster), this is not undemocratic, since Scottish people can vote in Westminster elections. The same arguments will be wheeled out for the Six Counties (which the Westminster government fervently avers is no different from any other part of the United Kingdom).

The ongoing tussle between ideologues, professional politicians and the interests of the wealthy will continue, using border and people’s identities as pieces in the great game. Today’s fervent Unionist may be tomorrow’s avowed separatist, should the winds of profit blow that way. For now, Sinn Fein ministers will ‘share power’ by picking up salaries that would have once gone to Unionists, and will get on with delivering goods and services to their constituents on terms that the propertied classes will allow so long as their interests continue to be served.


Next article: ‘Multipolar’ . . . but purely capitalist ➤

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