On the 3rd, Northern Ireland resolved a two-year impasse and paved the way to reignite another, this one more than a hundred years old. The first Saturday of February saw Michelle O’Neill, from the nationalist Sinn Féin party, become the new head of government in Northern Ireland. Her party, which in the past was the political arm of the terrorist group IRA, received the most votes in the election for the Northern Irish National Assembly in May 2022. However, it failed to form a government.
The legislation establishes that the Northern Ireland Executive must be made up of members of nationalist and unionist parties (which defend the country’s permanence in the United Kingdom). The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) received the second most votes in the 2022 election, but refused to form a government and boycotted the National Assembly for two years because it was contrary to post-Brexit trade rules.
Finally, an agreement was reached, which includes a transfer of 3 billion pounds (almost R$19 billion) from the British government to public services in Northern Ireland. With O’Neill heading the new government, for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1921, a nationalist holds the top position in the Northern Irish Executive. A recent CNBC report highlighted how the new prime minister’s family background reflects the blurred lines between Sinn Féin and the IRA in the past: her father was arrested when he was a member of the terrorist group and later became a councilor for the party, while a cousin, also a member of the IRA, was killed by the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service (SAS) in 1991.
Now, O’Neill seeks the reunification of Ireland without taking up arms. “There are so many things that are changing. All the old norms, the nature of this state, the fact that a nationalist republican should never be prime minister. All of this indicates change,” O’Neill said in an interview with Sky News. Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Féin, stated that a referendum on the island’s reunification should be held within ten years in a press conference with the international press last Thursday.
The possibility of a referendum displeases both the British government and the unionist allies of the new Northern Ireland Executive. The British Prime Minister emphasized that it’s not about promoting a constitutional change, but it’s about implementing day-to-day things that are important to people. The unionist allies also expressed that the population wants the government to focus on resolving day-to-day issues rather than being distracted by constitutional issues.