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Why Northern Ireland Is on Cusp of Crisis Again: QuickTake Q&A


Northern Ireland is preparing for its second election in a year, scheduled for March 2. The power-sharing arrangement between the pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, which wants a united Ireland, collapsed in January. While the vote won’t change how Theresa May’s U.K. government treats talks to leave the European Union, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could become an issue in how Brexit is carried out.

1. What’s at stake in the election?

Negotiations following the election to the power-sharing assembly may be the only chance for Northern Ireland to avoid a return to direct rule by the U.K. and retain the ability to govern itself. The assembly was one of the key pieces of architecture in the region’s peace process, which ended decades of sectarian conflict. If the key players can’t reach a deal in the aftermath of the election, London may have to take control again.

2. Who are the main players?

The pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, which wants a united Ireland, are the two biggest parties in the assembly, and are likely to remain so after the vote. After the last election, unionist parties had a total of 56 seats, while parties in favor of a united Ireland had 40 seats. Arlene Foster leads the DUP, while Michelle O’Neill is the new leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. The remaining lawmakers are made up of centrist parties and independents.

3. Where do the parties stand on Brexit?

The DUP supported leaving the EU, as did the much smaller Traditional Unionist Voice. The Ulster Unionist Party broke from those largely Protestant parties to advocate remaining in the EU. Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the centrist Alliance Party also backed staying. In the referendum, about 56 percent of Northern Ireland voters backed "remain." Sinn Fein is leading calls for the region to be given a special status within the EU after Brexit, but there seems little real prospect of that.

4. What does this mean for the border?

The Brexit vote raised the possibility of a return to the so-called hard border between Northern Ireland, which is to leave the EU, and the Republic of Ireland, which is staying. For now, goods and services flow seamlessly across the border every day. If that becomes a hard border, customs checks would almost certainly have to be introduced, and barring a new trade deal, U.K. exports could run into the union’s common external tariff, which now averages about 5 percent across all goods. Ireland was split in 1921 as part of the deal that gave most of the island independence from Britain, creating the 310-mile (500 kilometer) border. Some observers are concerned that the sight of checkpoints along the border could re-ignite conflict in the region.

5. Why are elections taking place?

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigned after Foster, his DUP counterpart, refused to step aside pending an investigation of how the cost of a subsidized energy program spiraled out of control. The first minister and deputy first minister effectively jointly lead the region’s assembly, and neither position can exist without the other. The only way to resolve the impasse is with new elections.

6. What happens after the election?

The two biggest winners, most likely DUP and Sinn Fein again, will have three weeks to agree on terms for a new power-sharing arrangement. James Brokenshire, the U.K. government minister in charge of Northern Ireland, could extend the deadline if the two sides are close to an agreement. If no agreement is reached, the U.K. government may impose direct rule on Northern Ireland. This has happened four times since the the power-sharing assembly was created. The last period of direct rule ended in 2007 after five years.

7. Will the result be any different from last year’s elections?

That’s for certain, if only because the number of seats in the assembly has been cut to 90 from 108. Also, the short run-in to this election may hamper smaller parties and independents, which do not have the same capability to put together an election campaign on short notice. They collectively won 14 seats last year.

8. Will this be the end of the current dispute?

Unlikely. There is still a degree of enmity between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which may worsen after a divisive election campaign. If the two parties do agree to share power again, it is likely to be tense at best.

The Reference Shelf

  • A visit to the front line of Brexit.
  • A Quicktake explainer on the U.K.’s potential future relationship with the EU.
  • Sinn Fein is lobbying for Northern Ireland special status.
  • Cash for Ash -- why elections are taking place once again.
  • The Centre for Cross Border Studies assesses the issues at stake around the border after Brexit.
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