Sinn Féin to finally get its hands on the prize almost two years after winning North elections

Your essential end-of-week politics catch up, from the imminent return of Stormont to the text that downed Mercosur

Story of the Week

The late SDLP politician Séamus Mallon once described the tortuously negotiated Belfast Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. (The latter was a short-lived agreement between unionists and nationalists in 1974 that was abandoned after widespread industrial strikes orchestrated by loyalist organisations in the Northern Ireland).

The quote had some resonance this week. Some 21 months after the Assembly elections of May 2022, the Executive will finally be formed, after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) struck a deal with the British government that gave it some concessions on Brexit and the Northern Protocol.

The pretext for the DUP refuseniks was Brexit but the subtext was a fully-fledged civil war within the party over allowing Sinn Féin enter the Executive as the leading party.

As such, there is no diminishing the fact that at 1pm on Saturday we will witness a historic moment. The retiring speaker Alex Maskey will open proceedings and soon after the nominations will open to nominate a new speaker and, then, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.


Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill will make a moment of history when she becomes the first politician from a nationalist background to become the effective political leader of Northern Ireland. It will also mark another milestone in the rise of Sinn Féin from the sidekick of a paramilitary organisation to the biggest political party in the North, with a real prospect that it also achieve that status in the South. And in Stormont, too, which was one infamously described as a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.

The difficulties within the DUP have been on show in recent weeks, with the normally contained Jeffrey Donaldson becoming highly emotional when launching a tirade against those who have threatened him in the past few months. His cause was not helped by the fact that an insider was leaking every syllable of internal DUP meetings to loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson.

As Donaldson is to remain as an MP, the Lagan Valley MLA Emma Little-Pengelly is the favourite to become Deputy First Minister, although Gordon Lyons’ name is also being mentioned. (He is more likely to become Minister for Finance).

The SDLP leader Colm Eastwood has been the only one to publicly criticise the deal, by looking at the deal itself. He said that it was now too much biased towards east-west (Northern Ireland and Britain) and moving away from the North-South dimension.

There is an implicit criticism there that Sinn Féin, with its eyes on the prize, neglected (or ignored) to parse the details of the trade deal.

The text that downed Mercosur

In late January, in the run-up to the European Summit in Brussels, French president Emmanuel Macro sent a text to EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

He told her that more clarity was needed on Mercosur and requested the deal should not be signed in its current form. It is understood that she agreed to the request from one of the most powerful leaders in the EU.

The Mercosur deal has been two decades in the making and will allow substantial reductions in tariffs for goods traded between the EU and South American countries including Brazil. However, the main objections in Europe have come from farmers who have claimed that Brazilian beef, which has a much larger environmental footprint than EU beef, will be imported into Europe at prices that undercut European farmers.

Macron is said to have been prompted to text Von der Leyen after reading reports that swathes of Amazonian rainforest had been razed in order to allow beef production. There was also the question of enormous farmer rallies, blockades and protests around the EU.

The deal has been in negotiations for two decades, and supporters had hoped the agreement with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay could be concluded after new environmental protections were sought.

On Thursday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also ruled out ratifying the deal.

“I also would echo President Macron’s comments in relation to Mercosur. This trade agreement can’t be ratified in its current form,” Mr Varadkar told reporters. “We can’t have a situation whereby we impose environmental regulations for farmers, and allow imports from countries that don’t have those same regulations.”

In the other big outcome of the one-day summit, EU leaders unanimously agreed a €50 billion support package for Ukraine after persuading Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban to drop his veto.

Bust up

The planning application by DAA to expand Dublin Airport will not lead to a seamless process. There are numerous objections to the 7,000 page submission, not least from a large number of politicians from Government parties.

They include four Green councillors from Fingal, the Green TD for Limerick Brian Leddin, as well as seven Fianna Fáil councillors from Fingal.

As Arthur Beesley reports, the objections are a sign of Coalition discord over the expansion, with perhaps cracks appearing within the three-party Government.

Winner of the Week

The undoubted winner was Michelle O’Neill who will become the first nationalist politician to become First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Loser of the Week

I’m afraid it is RTÉ again. The afterglow of Oliver Callan being announced as the long-term presenter for the 9am slot on the RTÉ Radio 1 slot did not last long. This week, the long-awaited McCann FitzGerald report on the two voluntary exit schemes in 2017 and 2021 was published. It found that the package for former chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe was not brought before the executive board, as it should have been. It also found that the Revenue could look into tax issues surrounding the packages agreed with ten other employees.

The Public Accounts Committee is now likely to call in all of the broadcaster’s current leadership to a meeting in February, as well as former employees including former director general Dee Forbes, and former chair Moya Doherty, if they are in a position to attend.

Big Reads

Jennifer Bray has a big read tomorrow looking at both sides of the forthcoming referendum to modernise the definition of family and care in the Constitution. I have a big read looking at the make-up and prospects of the five small right-wing parties contesting the general election. And don’t forget to read Pat Leahy’s column, all on

Hear here

On this week’s podcast, Pat Leahy, Freya McClements and Mark Paul joined Hugh Linehan to discuss the DUP’s acceptance of the historic deal that could allow powersharing resume in Northern Ireland tomorrow. Mark was hearing glasses clinking all round in London.

Mark Paul: “(Where I’m sitting in Westminster) it’s where a lot of MPs have their lunch. If you hear the clinking of glasses it’s just MPs swilling all around me.”

Pat Leahy: “Are they celebrating the return of the Institutions I wonder?”


Stormont will return: analysis from Belfast, London and Dublin

Listen | 46:49