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On the 26th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement – a crucial historic milestone that sealed peace between Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland – the specter of uncertainty looms more than ever over the future of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. This agreement, once considered a cornerstone of regional stability, is now facing headwinds, exacerbated by the rise to power of nationalist First Minister Michelle O’Neill. This political ascension reflects a shift in public opinion, indicating a growing disenchantment with adherence to Great Britain.

This surprising evolution is all the more remarkable when considering Northern Ireland’s long history of attachment to the British Crown, with a majority of loyalist Protestants. What caused this sense of belonging to fracture? Brexit, undoubtedly, and the turmoil that accompanied negotiations around the Northern Ireland Protocol, led to prolonged paralysis of local political institutions.

However, it is necessary to uncover the roots of the problem. Let’s go back to June 23, 2016: the British vote, through a referendum, in favor of Brexit. The gap in perceptions becomes apparent. Unlike the choices expressed in England and Wales, Northern Ireland – like Scotland – expresses its wish to remain within the European Union, with support exceeding 55%. Thus, a sense of injustice begins to develop.

In this regard, Professor Anand Menon, an eminent specialist in Northern Irish affairs at King’s College London and director of the “UK in a Changing Europe” Institute, emphasizes, “We must accept the fact that the Brexit process has led to significant reflection on the UK’s union.” He adds that “the majority in Westminster (the Conservatives, editor’s note) denies the persistent problems that were both predictable and anticipatable – notably in the official analysis accompanying the withdrawal agreement when submitted to parliament.” He continues, “The Northern Irish, like the Scots, feel excluded from the decision-making process in favor of the English, thus fueling growing support for independence to restore their sovereignty.”

However, the real breaking point lies in the obstacles encountered during negotiations concerning the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Good Friday Agreement, concluded under the auspices of Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, provided for the abolition of borders and the free movement of goods between the two territories. However, Brexit posed a major challenge: Ireland, as a member of the European Union, cannot maintain a free trade regime with a non-member region, namely Northern Ireland, and by extension with the rest of the United Kingdom. Despite repeated assurances from former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his election campaign, promising the absence of customs checks on exchanges between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, he ultimately accepted a proposal from the EU that went in this direction. This U-turn sparked protests and manifestations of discontent among the population, who once again felt marginalized.

These tensions led to prolonged paralysis of Northern Irish institutions, with the loyalist government of the time categorically refusing any form of customs control between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country.

A high-ranking source at Downing Street affirmed in this regard, “Prime Minister Sunak has spared no effort to restore Northern Irish stability within the UK, as their membership in the British union is essential,” adding, “Countering any rise in nationalist sentiment, which has undeniably become more worrying, is also part of his priorities.” This same source thus concluded, “The mistakes of the past and the neglect of the problems for so long certainly have not contributed to improving the situation,” undoubtedly alluding to the mishandling of this issue by previous governments, without naming them.

Today, the question arises: Does the arrival of nationalist Michelle O’Neill in power in Northern Ireland herald the beginning of the process of leaving the United Kingdom? Constitutionally, this does not mean much. Indeed, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, it has been established that power (and therefore the government of national unity) is evenly distributed between loyalists and nationalists. The position of chief executive does not therefore offer the necessary prerogatives to trigger the independence vote, which are held by Westminster in London. Nevertheless, it is a significant symbolic victory, proof of an increasingly notable shift in public opinion. The growing promises of nationalists to organize an independence referendum within a few years are thus untenable, unless approved by the House of Representatives and royal assent.

Will we ever witness the union of the two Irelands? One thing is certain: the process is likely to be very long and uncertain!