Northern Ireland is the closest it’s been to leaving the United Kingdom in two decades after recent elections only increased animosity between its two major parties. The rising tensions come amid Brexit taking effect and a push for Scottish independence.
Assembly elections last Thursday left just a sliver of difference between the seats carried by Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties, setting the stage for another election to possibly be announced in the coming weeks. It would be the third election in the region in a year.
At the heart of this division is the controversial matter of Irish independence from the U.K., but more recent global developments have compounded the issue. First, let’s examine was led to Thursday’s elections.
In 1998, following three decades of sectarian fighting, a compromise on political control of Northern Ireland was finalized. The Good Friday Agreement required cooperation between the U.K. unionists of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Irish republicans of Sinn Féin. Each party would hold either the position of first minister or deputy first minister, and neither office would be able to govern without the consent of the other.
That system broke down in January of this year, when Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Féin, retired after citing health reasons, The Atlantic reported. His party, the second-largest, never chose a replacement, which prompted the elections held on Thursday. It turned out to be a good strategy, as the DUP leader was mired in scandal. DUP picked up one more seat than Sinn Féin, but not enough to maintain any veto power, which was a major boost for the republicans.
Back in 2012, when she was a minister of enterprise, trade, and investment, DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster helped initiate a program that subsidized renewable energy to heat people’s homes. Taxpayers ended up footing a nearly £500 million bill (about U.S. $609 million ) when they were promised only £25 million would be spent within a five-year period.
Whistleblowers spurred investigations into the program in February 2016, and in December, another whistleblower accused Foster of ignoring the cost overruns when they became apparent. Ten days later, Sinn Féin’s First Minister McGuinness demanded Foster step aside. She refused, and by January 2017, McGuinness had retired, forcing new elections.
Now, Northern Ireland has less than three weeks to form a new power-sharing government. If the elected Sinn Féin and DUP officials fail to come to an agreement, the reign over the region will default to London, or new elections could be called for once again.
The issues to be settled include how Brexit will be managed. The republicans were firmly anti-Brexit, or pro-remain, while the unionists were adamantly in favor of leaving the European Union. As Ireland has trading partners that remain in the E.U. and shares a border with Northern Ireland, the republicans want an exemption. They fear the Brexit fallout will cut off their free flow of goods and people over the border, an existential threat to their desire for unity with Ireland.
Sinn Féin may still be the second-largest political party in Northern Ireland, but it was only 1,200 votes away from overtaking the DUP last Thursday. Voter turnout increased Thursday, as well, so it is not far-fetched to anticipate a repeat surge if another election is soon announced, Reuters reported.
Northern Ireland is the poorest region of the U.K., and it benefits greatly from E.U. subsidies, including receiving £320 million (about $390 million in USD) in 2015. Eighty-seven percent of its farmers’ average incomes come from Brussels, according to the Financial Times. The region voted 56 percent against Brexit, and if its Scottish neighbors further pursue their own independence, Irish republicans may well push that much harder against London.