OPN Brexit Northern Ireland
The UK government has set out new post-Brexit trade arrangements between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the European Union (EU) Image Credit: Gulf News

The National Health Service in Northern Ireland is the worst in the United Kingdom — and that says a lot. It’s pretty bad in all the four nations that make up the UK, just consistently the worst across the Irish Sea.

The ambulance service is also abysmal in the British Irish province too. So too any other public service that is supposed to be overseen by the government. Education, local authority finances, roads, transport. But if you haven’t actually had a government in place overseeing things, it’s easy to see how things would go from really bad to worst very quickly.

That’s been the case in Northern Ireland. While Sinn Fein, the nationalist group that wants the six counties of Ulster to be reunited with the rest of the Irish Republic to the south, has been ready to take over the reins of power for more than two years now, it had no other partner to share power with. Yes, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of sectarian and political violence, Northern Ireland has a unique power-sharing government, where the two largest parties from each side of the nationalist-Unionist divide, made joint decisions.

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It takes two to perform a political tango there, and the Unionists, in the form of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) — they believe the province is an intrinsic part of that United Kingdom, and Belfast should be treated no differently than Bristol, Brighton or Birmingham.

But then add in ‘Brexit’ that mix, and the whole notion of Britain voting to leave the European Union takes on a whole new context. Voters in Northern Ireland — and Scotland too, but that’s a column for another time — voted to remain part of the EU. Consider too that the border that divides Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic was the UK’s only land border with the EU and you realise why the madcap notion of walking away from Europe was going to be exceedingly complex — particularly when that division of Ireland has been the subject of life and death in a prolonged terrorist campaign for several generations.

Ever since that Brexit vote, the cream of Conservative politicians was soured by trying to untie the Gordian knot that is the border, keeping it open, and allowing goods to cross without bringing back border controls that would very quickly escalate into violence. But as long as the Northern Ireland power-sharing assembly in Stormont was working, that risk of tension might be managed.

“Windsor Framework”

Except it wasn’t. The DUP consistently refused to participate, saying that the “solution” dreamt up by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson treated Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK. Of course, it did. Johnson simply drew the customs line down the Irish Sea, effectively making England Scotland, and Wales out of the EU, with NI remaining under Brussels’ sphere of customs influence.

Sure, the situation has eased over the past four years, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and EU officials drawing up the “Windsor Framework” to end bottlenecks and create a “green channel” for goods, just like you have when you arrive at any airport from an international flight. But the DUP are a stubborn lot and they have steadfastly refused to enter government. Yes, it was bad enough that since the last elections and for the first time, Sinn Fein were the largest party and senior partner of equals in the power-sharing assembly, but Brexit and being treated differently was simply unbearable. Unil Wednesday.

It’s amazing what a financial inducement of £3 billion (Dh14billion) will do to grease the wheels of the most stubborn. But there is also the reality that the DUP and its steadfast refusal to participate in government in Northern Ireland was making it more and more irrelevant by the day.

That same Good Friday Agreement allows for a “Border Poll” — a one-off referendum for the people of Northern Ireland to decide their future, inside the UK or reuniting with the Republic of Ireland. With Sinn Fein in power in Northern Ireland and likely to become part of a government to the south some the next general election in Ireland, triggering that referendum option becomes increasingly likely.

Time was on the DUP side by staying away from the table, nor is it on their side come that vote.

Sadly, the deal that they have now accepted is one that differs only ever so slightly by Theresa May as she tried to reach an agreement with Brussels during the early Brexit negotiations. She needed the 10 votes of the DEP MPs at Westminster to stay in power.

If only the DUP said ‘yes’ then, the entire population of the province would not have had to endure such misery as public services fell to pieces around them. Sadly, ‘no’ is the only word in the DUP vocabulary. More’s the pity.

At last the people of Northern Ireland get the government they deserve. Or don’t.