Northern Ireland is in political deadlock as Unionists prevent the new Assembly from being formed following Sinn Fein’s victory

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will visit Northern Ireland next Monday in the midst of the political crisis in the British province after the historic triumph of the Sinn Fein Catholics, who last week became, for the first time, the most voted force in the autonomous elections.

The formations were called yesterday to the Belfast Assembly for the start of the new legislature. But, as expected, the DUP Protestants blocked the appointment of the Speaker of the Northern Irish Parliament, so political activity is suspended indefinitely.

Catholics and Protestants are bound to govern in coalition by the 1998 peace accords. However, the unionists of the DUP now refuse to form an Executive. They claim to feel betrayed by Downing Street because Brexit has left the British province with a different status from the rest of the United Kingdom and they are not willing to unblock the situation until London changes the so-called Irish Protocol.

This is a key part of the Brexit agreement that provides for a series of safeguards and customs controls on the passage of goods from Britain to Belfast to avoid serious distortions in the single market and the customs union, since the Northern Irish remain in this community system despite the divorce with the bloc.

The Unionist leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, stressed yesterday that he wants to send a “clear message” to both London and Brussels and pointed out that “it is now up to the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) to explain what he intends to do”.

For her part, for Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, who claims her right to be chief minister, the DUP’s decision is “shameful” and implies a “punishment to the population”. “We should form an Executive that puts money in people’s pockets and starts to fix the health system,” she lamented.

Faced with this situation, the central government is now threatening to unilaterally tear up key parts of the Brexit agreement, hiding behind protecting the peace in Ulster. The State Advocate General, Suella Braverman, has given her approval for Downing Street to revoke key parts of the so-called Irish Protocol, arguing that Brussels’ interpretation of the new customs controls is “disproportionate and unreasonable”.

All indications are that next week Johnson’s Executive – which has an absolute majority – will introduce a bill in the House of Commons to carry out its threats.

Should the UK decide to act unilaterally, Brussels could impose tariffs on British goods, which would threaten to start a trade war between the two sides, and even suspend altogether the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that sets the terms under which the UK left the bloc.

The tension has reached such extremes that, in the coming days, a delegation of influential US congressional representatives is expected to arrive for a series of meetings in Brussels, Dublin, London and Belfast. Washington – where the Irish lobby is tremendously powerful – was once heavily involved in the Catholic-Protestant peace negotiations and now fears that everything is collapsing.

Joe Biden has already warned that if London finally takes unilateral action it would be provocative. The American president has always spoken proudly of his Irish roots and on more than one occasion has warned Downing Street that failure to comply with the Irish Protocol would have repercussions for a future UK-US trade deal.

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