11th January 2023
Despite having no sitting Assembly at the time of writing, we can still expect 2023 to be full of political drama.
Here’s a run-through of some of the key events that lie ahead of us this year…
We are guaranteed at least one election this year, with the Local Government Election scheduled for Thursday 18th May 2023 (previously planned for 4th May, but just before Christmas the date was moved to avoid the election count clashing with the coronation of King Charles on 6th May). At the last Local Government Election in May 2019 the Alliance Party were the big winners with a gain of 21 seats across Northern Ireland; the DUP, UUP and SDLP all suffered losses (8, 13 and 7 losses respectively), whilst Sinn Féin held on to all 105 seats it held prior to the election. The Green Party and People Before Profit both grew by 4 seats, and Aontú returned with one seat. The TUV lost over half of the seats it held pre-election (7), the PUP lost 1, and UKIP lost all (3) seats held. Local Government Elections in Northern Ireland typically see a significant number of Independent candidates, and in 2019, 24 Independents were elected, an increase of 9 from the previous election. A key thing to look out for in this May election will be the number of seats gained by the Alliance Party, who continue to enjoy a surge in support. In this election they will be seeking to continue to grow their support in areas of Northern Ireland where in the past they haven’t been as strong, including west of the Bann and in rural areas.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, remains obliged to call a fresh Assembly Election if a new Executive is not formed. The SOS decided not to call an Assembly election in the run-up to Christmas, and legislation was introduced to delay the deadline to form an Executive before an election needs to be called – this provided a new deadline of 19th January. If the SOS were to call an election on this date, the latest it could take place would be 13th April. However, as Mr Heaton-Harris has backtracked on calling a snap election before, it remains entirely possible that these dates could again be shifted through legislation at Westminster to allow more breathing space for UK / EU negotiations to progress on the Northern Ireland Protocol – the catalyst for the DUP’s current blocking of an Executive being formed.
At a Westminster level, 2022 saw the end of two Prime Ministers and the arrival of a third, which has altered the dynamics of the main political parties. Due to the ratings for the governing Conservative party in recent polls, it is unlikely that there will be any desire for a General Election in 2023, so we should be spared yet another trip to the ballot box in this regard.
An anniversary and a special visit
April 10th will mark 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and planning is underway for events and initiatives to mark this, including a new education package.
There is a lot of speculation that President of the United States, Joe Biden, is planning a state visit to the UK and Ireland to coincide with the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, during which he will visit Northern Ireland. President Biden (who is of Irish heritage) has been extremely vocal in his pride of the US’s role in the Good Friday Agreement, and at the G20 summit in Bali in November, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised President Biden that the UK will reach a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol ahead of the anniversary.
This supposed visit could hinge on whether or not an Executive is formed, which in turn hinges on whether or not the UK Government and EU reach an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol that is sufficient to return the DUP to the Assembly.
Northern Ireland Protocol
The glue that holds it altogether… or in this case, keeps everything at a stalemate. Since Rishi Sunak’s ascension to Prime Minister, relations between the UK and EU appear to have improved, but a breakthrough in negotiations hasn’t occurred… at least not yet. Just before Christmas the European Commission announced a three-year extension to the grace period for veterinary medicines; and the UK Government’s Protocol Bill, which intends to unilaterally override aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement, has been reported to have been halted by the PM – both of these acts give reason to be cautiously optimistic on the relationship between the UK and the EU.
In the past days the recently returned Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said mistakes had been made on all sides in the handling of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and he conceded that the Protocol is “too strict”, a statement that was welcomed by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
At this stage talks between the UK and the EU remain at a technical level, so we are still some way off any political agreement, and any agreement that is reached will need to be enough to convince the DUP to return to the Executive.
They say a week is a long time in politics, and in a time of great political uncertainty this is definitely true, 2023 looks set to be a year filled with political challenges. The MCE team, with first-hand experience and contacts in central & local government, as well as the civil service, can provide you with unparalleled insight. Get in touch to see how we can help.
By Lindsay Millar