The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has called a fresh Assembly election for March 2, following the spectacular and unexpected collapse of the devolved Executive. The campaign seems likely to be divisive. Reviving devolved partnership government at the end, in a sustainable form, will be difficult, argues Alan Whysall, but is still the only way forward.
The deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness resigned last Monday, following the refusal of the First Minister, Arlene Foster, to step down pending investigation of her role several years ago, when Minister for Enterprise, in establishing the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The scheme (described in detail in Foster’s statement to the Assembly) was based on one in Great Britain with similar objectives, of encouraging burning of renewable fuels over traditional ones. But unlike that scheme, it provided for a subsidy that turned out to be greater than the market price of the fuel – so the more you burned, the more you earned – and did not taper with increasing use, nor reduce in rate if overall demand increased. The Northern Ireland system is left committed to making payments above its budget that may amount to £500 million over 20 years.
Everyone acknowledges that there have been, as the Audit Office concluded, ‘serious systemic failings’. But this is the latest of a string of affairs, involving DUP ministers as well as others, where rumours abound, though with no real evidence so far, of more serious malpractice. Foster’s DUP successor as Enterprise Minister fanned the flames in a TV interview: following prayers for divine support in telling the truth, offered on camera and with the assistance of a clergyman, he alleged that when the extent of the problems with the scheme emerged advisers to Foster, then Finance Minister, and to Peter Robinson, then First Minister, had sought to delay its closure.
Parts of the media have pursued this story energetically. The parties that had chosen to go into opposition in this Assembly following the May 2016 elections called loudly for Foster’s ejection from office, at least pending an enquiry. Sinn Féin, elected with the DUP on the Fresh Start agenda and pursuing a tacit non-aggression pact, were at first more measured. But as the clamour grew and the story developed, amid suggestions that they were DUP patsies, they asked that she should step aside pending inquiry. She declined.
The DFM’s resignation letter, however, lays out many other grievances bottled up in private by Sinn Féin over the preceding months. They have made clear that resumed devolved government depends on resolving them.
What happens now
Sinn Féin had by law seven days from the resignation to nominate a new deputy first Minister, though they made clear they would not, and did not. When the seven days expired on Monday the Secretary of State was then obliged to set a date for a new election, and has announced that it will be held on March 2. This will be to a smaller Assembly, 90 members instead of 108, five members rather than six being returned (under the single transferable vote system) from each parliamentary constituency: an economy measure that had been intended to take effect in 2021.
When the Assembly returns, a few days after the election, there will be 14 days to put in place a new FM and DFM, elect a Justice Minister with cross-community support in the Assembly, fill the other posts and agree a Programme for Government. If that does not happen – and the largest unionist or nationalist party can block it – the only statutory recourse is for the Secretary of State to call further elections.
There is no longer provision for the suspension of Stormont and reversion to direct rule. But legislating for that might then appear necessary: politics will be deadlocked, and no one would be in charge of government in Northern Ireland – the old ministers lose their posts when the Assembly returns. The Good Friday Agreement gives the Irish government a consultative role in direct rule decision-making.
Why has this happened?
Blame has been widely spread. Many say Foster’s gravest fault was arrogance in her handling of the issue, rather than her initial decisions on the scheme (which she has blamed on advisers); and there are signs that this has damaged her public standing, which was high after the DUP’s strong showing last May. On the other hand it can be argued that the sums involved, though serious, were not astronomical; her leaving office would be premature in advance of inquiries reporting; and that the opposition was behaving destructively, looking for scalps, at the expense of orderly government. Some DUP people have made Trump-like attacks on the media for bias.
But under the surface, much else seems to have been going wrong with government in Northern Ireland. The DFM letter highlights what Sinn Fein saw as DUP infringements of the principles of parity of esteem, respect and equality as regards nationalists and other groups. But there were also repeated lapses from what might be called the principles of good government.
The existing weaknesses of the system were aggravated by Brexit: the DUP favoured it, Sinn Féin and the other parties (and a majority of Northern Ireland voters) opposed, and the Executive was deadlocked. It has been able to make no public statement on the issue – though it will impact Northern Ireland uniquely starkly because of the land border – beyond a letter last summer to the Prime Minister asking that it should suffer no detriment. Sinn Féin warned after the referendum that Brexit could lead to stand-off. The prospect of being in government, powerless to resist, while borders of any kind, physical or other, go up within the island of Ireland no doubt remains unattractive.
The British government has come to be seen (not just in Sinn Féin circles) as less of an impartial broker – sharing DUP positions on the old Northern Ireland legacy issues as well as Brexit, and perhaps, it is said, befriending it in case of a need for its Westminster votes. In previous cases of this kind, the British and Irish governments and (perhaps the US) might have helped bring about a compromise forestalling the resignation: now, the leverage is lacking.
Sinn Féin may be open to accusations of preferring to play politics – and for impact in the Republic as much as in Northern Ireland – over doing good government (and one result of a precipitous election will be that much business is frozen, including next year’s budget, already overdue); of seeking to arm twist a British government and a new Prime Minister by conjuring up the prospect of another Northern Ireland imbroglio; and of taking advantage of opportunities obligingly offered by the DUP to seek to revive the nationalist cause, support for which has been in decline at elections and polling about the border. But it is clear that its base had been losing heart, and that the RHI issue had caused widespread resentment in the Northern Ireland population, which already had a particularly poor view of its elected representatives.
No one knows what the election result will be. The effect of eliminating the last seat in each constituency is unpredictable, and so is the impact of the RHI affair on the DUP vote. It may be that Northern Ireland electors, tired of the established parties, which are largely based on one community or other, will like others elsewhere move to new ground. They will probably not do so in great numbers, and most commentators expect the DUP to remain the largest party, and Sinn Féin the second largest. But confident prediction of voting behaviour is even rasher here than elsewhere in 2017.
It is harder, though, to be optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland now than at most points in the last 10 years or more. There has been much political turbulence in recent years, but Assembly elections have taken place in the context of political deals between the main parties, and commitments to work together: there has been a potential government on offer. This election is likely to be fought on distinctly hostile, tribal lines: safeguarding unionism against Sinn Féin, asserting the rights of nationalism against the DUP. The outcome is unlikely to resolve anything, but lead to greater division.
It is far from clear that the parties will be able to patch up their differences sufficiently to go back into government within the statutory fortnight following the new Assembly meeting. (It would all be the more difficult if Sinn Féin returned as largest party, thus entitled to nominate the First Minister; or if there were no one willing to be Justice Minister with the required cross-community appeal – the current incumbent’s seat is uncertain).
So it is inevitable that after the election there will be a period of heavy negotiation about the future of devolved government. Would there be direct rule during that period?
Some in Northern Ireland welcome the prospect, seeing it as a breathing space, while unpopular but necessary government decisions that have been neglected under devolution are made. But it is a dangerous course.
There is great self-interest on the part of elected representatives in keeping things going, and their parties. In particular it has been a central part of Sinn Féin’s narrative that its presence in government, rather than London’s, safeguards nationalist interests pending a united Ireland, and it is keen to show a southern electorate that it can govern responsibly.
But politics may start to run out of control. If politicians are freed from any obligation to work together, there is sufficient negativity around at present that things could rapidly deteriorate, and parties’ bases lead them away from compromise.
And recurrent Brexit challenges in the near future may make things worse rather than better. Direct rule would be a fraught experience, for all, and particularly for the British government.
Thus the Good Friday Agreement settlement could start to break down, with no plausible alternative on offer. In the wake of that, many gains of recent years may start to disappear, not least widespread acceptance of policing. Caution is needed in talking about increased terrorism or street violence, but the tensions on which they build may increase significantly.
Can it be avoided? The best that can be hoped for is probably the parties returning to devolved government after the election, perhaps on a contingent and time limited basis, while negotiation goes on in parallel about the way it is conducted in future.
This could be a classic Northern Ireland political negotiation, presided over and facilitated by the British and Irish governments and involving the larger political parties, buying us another year or so of surface harmony.
But it needs to be much more than that. Besides the grievances outlined by Sinn Féin, the frailties of Northern Ireland government (discussed in part 2 of this lecture, as they appeared a year ago) are ever clearer, and public confidence is sapped.
Changes to the fundamental architecture of the institutions look impractical while current voting patterns – largely favouring community-based parties – remain. Some adjustments to the way they operate, however, may now be necessary. But the real key to moving on is to change political culture and attitudes. Relatively little thought has been given to any of these issues.
Brexit will inevitably feature in a negotiation, little though the British government may wish it to do so: the more so as, in the context of the Article 50 declaration, London’s starting points become clearer. The absence of any position on Brexit from the Executive, and any public debate about key detail, is now striking, especially given the work done by the Scottish government and the debate there. It will take time for the Northern Ireland options to clarify. The future of the Northern Ireland settlement may hang over the Brexit debate for many months.
Traditionally, the British, Irish and US governments have done a lot of thinking. But ever less of that can be expected. The British government has its attention on other things, and has lost influence. The Irish government has thought deeply about Brexit issues in particular, but it too has much else to worry it, and Dublin politics may become volatile again. What the new US Administration may think is entirely unclear, but there is no sign there will be the focus of the Clinton, Bush and Obama years.
Northern Ireland needs to pursue its own leadership. This means civic society taking a much fuller role. A future post will outline how it might do that, and so start to address the problems of government in Northern Ireland and their possible remedies; and most pressingly, the Brexit questions.
About the author
Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, where he is undertaking further work on Northern Ireland.