Two weeks after her election victory, Northern Ireland’s Sinn Féin boss Michelle O’Neill presented herself as prime minister-designate in London for the first time. On May 5, the pro-Irish nationalists achieved a historic triumph over the pro-British Unionists, who have always dominated. However, the 46-year-old cannot form a government in Belfast because the second largest Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is blocking it.

At a meeting with international media, O’Neill accused the British government of jeopardizing the interests of the people of Northern Ireland for partisan and domestic political reasons. “Boris Johnson and the Tories are attacking head-on our peace agreement, the Good Friday Agreement,” O’Neill said.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement mandates participation of Protestants and Catholics in the executive branch. The DUP has made it a condition of their cooperation that London abolishes the “Northern Ireland Protocol” agreed in 2019 as part of the Brexit agreement. Prime Minister Boris Johnson supports the DUP in this demand to the extent that he also wants to delete large parts of the protocol. A protocol that he negotiated and signed himself.

In order to make his point clear, he is currently preparing a parallel bill that would overrule the protocol. Although Brussels offers changes to the protocol, it categorically rejects a renegotiation.

The DUP and other pro-British parties oppose the protocol because it requires customs controls in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, therefore on British territory. The unionists see this as a threat to their British identity and their economy. The pro-Irish side, on the other hand, wants to keep the protocol and sees many advantages in it because Northern Ireland has dual customs status and thus unrestricted access to the British and EU markets.

Sinn Féin’s strategy is to present itself as a unifying force for all communities in Northern Ireland and also in Ireland. During the election campaign, O’Neill spoke little about the goal of reunifying Ireland and much about rapid inflation and poor health care.

Ultimately, the pro-Irish nationalists’ ultimate goal is to reverse the 1921 separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland. “Sinn Féin is in a very strong position. And the tide has turned irrevocably in Ireland,” said Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the party in the Republic of Ireland, which also won the election there in 2020 but was unable to form a coalition and is therefore in the opposition in Dublin. “Within a decade we should see the corresponding constitutional change, the reunification of Ireland.”

The politician, who also traveled to London, accused Prime Minister Johnson of wanting to undermine the peaceful and orderly change the Republicans were striving for. The Good Friday Agreement includes the option of a referendum on reunification. The British Minister for Northern Ireland must do this if a recognizable majority in Northern Ireland wants it on a permanent basis. In the second step, the citizens of the Republic of Ireland must also agree to reunification.

In London and Brussels, there are fears that Johnson and the DUP have maneuvered themselves into a political impasse that can only lead to the rebuilding of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Because if the British do not implement the protocol, Ireland, as an EU member, will have to protect the internal market from dangerous imports. Sinn Féin downplays this risk on WELT demand. “There will be no hard limit. Dublin, London, Brussels, the US are against. Which means we’re not going backwards,” McDonald said. “Only the Unionists want yesterday. They want the past – but none of us have access to the past anymore.”