For the first time in its 103-year history, Northern Ireland has a nationalist leader. Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill became the First Minister on Saturday, ending the two-year boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – republican and unionist support is required for the power-sharing executive. The UK government’s ploy to convince the DUP to return to the executive involved billions of pounds and various constitutional assurances. But with the Stormont executive coming out of its freeze, so are its problems.
The region has been hit by budget deficits, inflation and a series of strikes. There are recruitment problems in the police and issues with basic infrastructure such as the water supply. Funding was thus central to last week’s deal. The new fiscal offer means the Barnett formula, which calculates money for the devolved administrations, could be amended to reflect the region’s greater need. Northern Ireland would receive £124 for every £100 spent in England – a change that will have great implications for future funding.
The Prime Minister says the £3.3bn deal for Northern Ireland means the new executive can rebuild public services hampered by industrial action and strikes. Northern Ireland’s politicians think not. The new executive has written to the UK government asking for more money. The justice minister and leader of the Alliance Party Naomi Long has said “Northern Ireland is under-funded in comparison to need”. In response, the UK government has effectively said these problems are now the assembly’s responsibility.
This is a key point. The region’s money problems will not go away but at least now there are ministers to take decisions on the public finances. That’s why the restoration of Stormont is a victory for Sunak. The Windsor framework, a trade agreement about Northern Ireland between the UK and the EU made in February 2023, was prematurely hailed as a turning point for Sunak because some expected the DUP to walk back into Stormont. It did not. It has taken another year of negotiations and numerous constitutional reassurances to achieve.
Yet that victory still rings hollow. The Prime Minister has merely resolved problems created by his own party. The framework cleaned up his predecessors’ mess: it eased the trade restrictions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that the original Brexit agreement had created. While that framework and the most recent agreement are progress, and the people in Northern Ireland are better served when ministers are in place, the question by which Sunak’s actions will be judged is why they were necessary in the first place.
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