Ten days after the historic victory of the Republicans of Sinn Fein in the local elections, the institutions of Northern Ireland are at a standstill.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is visiting Belfast on Monday May 16, hoping to end this political paralysis.

At the origin of this impasse, the refusal of the unionists of the DUP to participate in the executive of this province, yet supposed to be shared under the terms of the peace agreement of 1998 – an agreement which ended three decades of known bloody conflict. under the name of "Troubles".

They have thus blocked the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly by making it impossible for the moment to elect its president.

Tensions around the Northern Irish protocol

Viscerally attached to the union with Great Britain, the unionists thus intend to protest against the Northern Irish protocol, an agreement signed between London and Brussels to answer the delicate question of the border between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of European Ireland after Brexit.

This text creates a de facto customs border with Great Britain and threatens, according to them, the place of this province within the United Kingdom.

Upon his arrival at Hillsborough Castle, on the outskirts of Belfast - where the talks are taking place - Boris Johnson was booed by around 200 protesters, including anti-Brexit activists and relatives of victims of the "Troubles".

According to Downing Street, the British Prime Minister intends to send a "clear message" to the various political formations: they must "return to work" to solve the daily problems of the population, while he seeks to convince Brussels to modify the protocol. 

Citing political tensions in Northern Ireland and disruptions in trade, the British government wants to renegotiate this protocol in depth with the European Union, which says it is only ready for adjustments.

London is threatening unilateral action to override this agreement.

An unacceptable position for the EU which accuses Boris Johnson of going back on a treaty signed knowingly, even if it means violating international law, and threatens severe trade reprisals.

"I hope the EU's position will change," Boris Johnson wrote in an op-ed in the Belfast Telegraph, failing which "action will be necessary" to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

London's "reasoning" is to be presented to the British parliament on Tuesday by the head of diplomacy Liz Truss, according to Downing Street, which insists on the need for "urgent progress".

According to the British press, this could take the form of a bill allowing the government to unilaterally suspend certain parts of the protocol by invoking its article 16. A passage would take weeks and would pave the way for a crisis situation between the EU and London, but also in Northern Ireland.

"The last thing Europe needs"

Northern Irish institutions had already experienced three years of paralysis, against the backdrop of a financial scandal, before an agreement allowed the restoration of their operation in January 2020.

Arriving at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney warned against "unilateral action or threats of unilateral action" which would violate international law.

Such acts are “the last thing Europe needs when we are working so well together in the face of Russian aggression” in Ukraine, he added, stressing that the Northern Irish protocol and the agreement of free trade concluded between London and Brussels are "linked".

Tipped to become Northern Ireland's new Prime Minister, Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill has accused the DUP of taking 'society hostage for the hard Brexit they brought with their friends of Boris Johnson's Conservative Party.

After meeting Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin in Dublin, she blasted Boris Johnson for his repeated threats of unilateral action, a move she called "madness".

With AFP

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