Northern Ireland's politics are stuck between a popular demand for normal pragmatic government and a power-sharing system designed to deal equitably with conflicting constitutional preferences among its population. Power-sharing was agreed in the 1998 Belfast Agreement and retains the support of most voters. Yet the same voters want to see power exercised effectively to tackle pressing everyday issues like health and social welfare, as this month's elections made clear. That desire is frustrated by the DUP's refusal to participate in government unless the Northern Ireland Protocol issue is settled to their satisfaction.
Demands for political reform to remove such a veto are rising, not least from the Alliance party, which did so well in the elections. They oppose mandatory power-sharing in principle and are disadvantaged by it, but they are willing to explore reforms to make it more flexible and have widespread support for that objective. The question is whether and how far it is possible to introduce change without upending the power-sharing settlement itself. That depends on whether there is sufficient will to do so in Sinn Féin, now the largest designated party, and in the DUP, now struggling with its secondary status.
Amendments to the power-sharing rules have indeed been made, and it was originally intended that this would be possible as circumstances changed. The St Andrews agreement in 2006 created a way for the DUP to enter government without having to vote directly for Sinn Féin. This was done by consensus between the major parties and with the involvement of both governments. Other rule changes have been more procedural, like the one which allowed the UUP to decline its seats in the executive and go into opposition.
It is more generally agreed now among the parties represented in the Assembly that the petition of concern rules have been abused by the DUP to prevent policies they oppose being implemented. Changing social attitudes towards issues such as abortion and gay rights within Northern Ireland, together with the constitutional questions opened up by Brexit, and shifting balances between the two major communities there, are joined to the popular demands for effective government in the new political setting.
It is quite rational to debate and agree rule changes to reduce veto points in this setting. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin, as the largest parties, need to be much more aware of how popular devolved government is with voters. An alternative perspective of political impasse and dysfunction leading to fresh elections and possible direct rule opens up larger questions of where Northern Ireland is going constitutionally. The DUP’s political opportunism on forming a government, tied to an equally opportunist British government policy on the protocol, could rebound on them.