The Politics-Pausing Protocol
The third attempt to restore Stormont was unsurprisingly unsuccessful. The same arguments on both sides of the protocol debate were played out as they have been over the months. However, as we know in politics, events take over. The cost of living crisis is one that affects us all. The protocol is undoubtedly an important issue within unionism that evokes much emotion. But we also have to eat, pay bills and have access to a healthcare system whenever we need it.
Opposition to the protocol was at its strongest whenever the DUP’s First Minister resigned from the Executive. The context of that time was one of taking a strong stance to the protocol in the face of an upcoming Assembly election amidst Northern-Ireland-wide street protests to it. However, the Assembly election has taken place. The street protests to the protocol are on hold for the time being. Unionism finds itself watching the Conservative Party leadership contest to see who will become the next Prime Minister and what they will do to address the protocol issue.
Though, unionism will also know we have been here before multiple times waiting for a Conservative Party Leader to come to the rescue only to disappoint. Meanwhile, after an Assembly election that has left unionism with reduced representation, the next election will be a Council election. All parties will not want to be knocking on doors without Stormont being in full operation in the middle of a cost of living crisis.
A Sinn Fein First Minister?
Many republicans dismiss unionist opposition to the protocol as an excuse not to allow a Sinn Fein First Minister to take office. However, this is not so. Note what DUP MLA for Belfast North Brian Kingston said in the Assembly at the third attempt to elect a Speaker on 3rd August 2022: “The DUP is a pro-devolution party. We want to see stability and sustainability in our political institutions… We are democrats. We will appoint a deputy First Minister when those issues [regarding the protocol] are addressed.”
For many unionists who experienced the Troubles or who were directly affected by it, a Sinn Fein First Minister taking office would be difficult to watch. My own grandmother narrowly survived the 1971 Red Lion Pub bombing within seconds and any time she spoke to me about it decades after it had happened, she would break down into tears as she described the horror of what happened that day. She was traumatised by it and it was something she could never forget.
So I do understand opposition to the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister, though I would point out that we have already had one in effect since 2007 so in practical terms, nothing has changed in terms of power. Unionism will still have a veto to keep Sinn Fein in check.
The Three Blocs
Furthermore, key facts that are often overshadowed by Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party in the Assembly is that although unionism lost three seats (from 40 seats to 37 seats), nationalism actually lost four seats (from 39 seats to 35 seats). The growth of the Other designation in the Assembly (from 11 seats to 18 seats) is not just a challenge to unionism but is also a challenge to nationalism.
After everything that has happened to unionism over these past years, you would think nationalism should be doing better but instead what we are seeing is a move away from unionist-nationalist politics. From a unionist perspective, this helps to dampen constitutional support for a united Ireland as the Other designation will focus on non-constitutional issues within Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK. Unionism might be the most divided bloc within the Assembly but it is still the largest bloc and unionism should take comfort in this fact in our new three-bloc politics.
Hope for the Future
There is much pessimism in our politics at the moment but I would appeal to everyone to take inspiration from Belfast Pride: it shows Northern Ireland society at its best. People from all backgrounds came together to celebrate diversity. People in Northern Ireland want to see devolution working. The protocol issue can be resolved. In the same way Stormont was once restored before under immense public pressure, I believe it will be restored again under that same pressure.
Michael Palmer holds a degree in Politics from Ulster University and is interested in political ideology, the politics of popular culture and wrote a dissertation on unionism/loyalism.