The issue of a unionist veto over political change has become central to politics in the north of Ireland after attempts were made by unionists to include it in the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
The DUP has told the London government that it might not return to Stormont if it doesn’t get a veto on customs and regulatory arrangements following Britain’s departure from the EU.
Sinn Féin and the DUP are at loggerheads over how the Assembly approves of post-Brexit arrangements on the island of Ireland.
Speaking in the House of Commons, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson (pictured) said he “cannot emphasise enough” how important the “principle of consent” is to unionists -- a reference to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which his party opposed.
For its part, Sinn Féin has said that it would block the formation of a new Assembly if the final Brexit deal were to hand a veto to any party.
According to the new Brexit deal, the new arrangements will come into effect at the start of 2021 and, after an initial four-year period, Assembly Members will vote whether to continue to apply them.
That vote will be conducted on a simple majority head count. Although unionists hold a slim majority of seats in the Assembly as currently formulated, some of these were won by the moderate unionist Alliance Party. Alliance designates itself as ‘Other’ and is opposed to Brexit.
The DUP, however, insist that they should have a veto on the basis that political change can be blocked if it is opposed by a majority of those who designate themselves as unionists.
Donaldson called for the “principle of consent” to be respected, and refused to accept that Brexit itself violated the principle. In a reference to a potential boycott by the DUP of the Assembly, he declared: “I say with all seriousness to the Secretary of State, if this issue is not addressed, it goes well beyond this Brexit deal.”
Responding, British Direct Ruler Julian Smith said the Assembly’s powers did not include Brexit, which was a matter for the London government.
“The [Good Friday] Agreement is extremely clear that there will be matters which will not be subject to the consent mechanism in the Assembly,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald warned that her party could also boycott a return to Stormont should the consent mechanism be reinstated.
“If the British Government were to make the fatal error of granting a veto to unionism over Brexit protections, if they were foolish enough to insist that that veto could be exercised through the Assembly, then there will be no Assembly here in Belfast,” she said.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this week pointed to the unionist veto on same-sex marriage as a motivation to introduce changes at Stormont.
A ban on same-sex marriage in the Six Counties was finally overturned this week through legislation which passed at Westminster earlier this year. An attempt was on Monday by the DUP to revive the Stormont Assembly to block the legislation, which also lifts a ban on abortion. It failed when Sinn Féin refused to take part, preventing a debate taking place.
Sinn Féin said the meeting had been “a political stunt on behalf of the DUP to try to continue to deny citizens their rights”.
Mr Varadkar noted that the veto mechanism had been used to block marriage equality in the North “even though vast majority of the Assembly and people want that to be legal, as it is in rest of UK and rest of Ireland”.
The outstanding issue of protecting the rights of Irish language speakers has also fallen foul of a DUP veto for over a decade, despite it forming part of previous agreements.
Addressing the Dublin parliament on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said the unionist veto had been used in a way he believes was not “ever anticipated when the Good Friday Agreement was signed”.
Mr Varadkar pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement had already been altered by the St Andrew’s Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement, so that further “evolution” was possible.