What now for Northern Ireland?

Of all the results announced yesterday, those for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections could prove to be the most consequential. It would be wrong to assume that a relatively strong performance by hardline nationalists Sinn Féin represents growing support for a united Ireland. There is little evidence that provincial public opinion has rallied behind a border poll, and Sinn Féin has focused its campaign on cost-of-living issues rather than constitutional issues. The unionist voice was more divided than in the past, while many voters drifted to the centrist Alliance party.

Nonetheless, Northern Ireland’s politics are likely to become more unstable rather than less so in the coming months. The immediate cause is ongoing anger over the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed as part of the Brexit deal, which treats the province differently to the rest of the UK for trade reasons. Unionist parties see this as an outrageous impertinence that undermines their place within the Union.

The government has tried to renegotiate the protocol with the EU, but with little success. Secretary of State Liz Truss had hoped a new deal could be reached earlier in the year, but that deadline passed with no sign of it. New legislation had been discussed in Westminster that would allow ministers to unilaterally override parts of the protocol. It is unclear whether this will still happen now.

The status quo is clearly untenable. If nothing changes, it may be impossible for the Stormont parties to form a power-sharing administration. What will the government do about it? What now for Northern Ireland?

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