Sat. May 28th, 2022


The UK government is “interested” in creating joint prime ministers in Northern Ireland as part of a long-term strategy to improve the functioning of the devolved administration, according to officials.

Power-sharing between pro-UK unionist politicians and nationalists who want a united Ireland has been fraught for years and the May 5 elections to the Stormont assembly appear likely to strain them further.

A Lucid Talk poll published on Sunday put nationalist Sinn Féin seven points ahead of the biggest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, and on course to deliver a historic first defeat for parties seeking to uphold the union with the UK in a region created a century ago for Protestants.

This would almost certainly give Sinn Féin the right to nominate the first minister, a post always held by a unionist since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of conflict in the region.

One UK official said the government “is interested in the idea [of a joint first minister] and is not unsympathetic to the argument but it would need proper negotiation, given the Good Friday Agreement implications ”.

Officials insisted any discussions would not be in response to a possible Sinn Féin victory, but rather in the context of a review of devolution around next year’s 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The first and deputy first ministers currently have identical powers but Jon Tonge, politics professor at Liverpool university, said: “The status thing is important.”

The high stakes of maintaining the delicate power-sharing balance were reinforced on Friday when a bomb scare forced Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, mid-speech, to abandon a peace-building event in Belfast.

The decision was taken after a van was hijacked at gunpoint by suspected loyalist paramilitaries, loaded with a device and its driver forced to head to the venue.

The incident was a hoax, but as campaigning kicks off this week for the elections, the UVF, a loyalist paramilitary group, was reportedly planning to escalate the targeting of Irish politicians.

Whatever the outcome on May 5, it might take months to establish an executive because, under new electoral rules, parties have 24 weeks to form one after the election.

The DUP, which withdrew its first minister from the administration in February in a row over post-Brexit trading arrangements, has refused to return until its Brexit demands are met. It has also not committed to serving in a Sinn Féin-led executive.

Stormont has repeatedly collapsed in recent years and the idea to restructure the administration to create joint first ministers has been floated unsuccessfully before by the centrist Alliance and nationalist SDLP parties.

Tonge said “the optics would look terrible” if Sinn Féin wins the election and takes the first minister role. “It would look like a desperate measure to water down the first minister’s position,” he said. But Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said it was an urgent issue and not just one of semantics.

“I proposed an initial amendment in the House of Commons to change the law on this, which was taken up in the House of Lords. Ultimately the government resisted change. . . but the matter must be reconsidered after the assembly election, ”he said.

The DUP wants forced power-sharing to be replaced with voluntary coalitions. “The way to get Stormont up and running is to remove the shadow of the protocol,” said one DUP figure.

But John O’Dowd, a Sinn Féin member of Northern Ireland’s assembly, said it was up to the people to decide who should be first minister.

“Will the DUP respect the ballot box and the democratic will of the people,” he said. “Or do they only do democracy on their own terms?”



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