The legal deadline for forming a new Northern Ireland Executive has passed without agreement between the parties. This could have important political and legal consequences, including the return of ‘direct rule’. For the time being, however, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has decided to give the negotiations more time. In this addendum to his earlier blog post, published on Monday before the UK government’s statement, Alan Whysall discusses what might happen over the coming weeks.
Monday’s deadline for forming a new Executive in Northern Ireland passed without an agreement. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke afterwards, and again in parliament on Tuesday. As predicted, he decided to give the negotiation process more time, until after the Easter recess (the Commons returns on 18 April). He will then ‘as a minimum’ bring forward a Westminster bill to regularise finances (see below). The bill would also allow an Executive to be formed, if political agreement emerges. But otherwise, the government would have to ‘consider all options’. Since he made it clear further elections were unappealing, this appears to mean direct rule, though he deplored the prospect.
In most such political deadlocks worldwide, there is at least a caretaker government of some sort: but not in Northern Ireland. No–one is at present empowered to give direction to the Northern Ireland civil service. The Head of the Service set out the nature of that uncomfortable position in a letter to staff. There would be business as usual, but no new initiatives, whose legal legitimacy must be doubtful. Such an arrangement clearly cannot go on for long, and unexpected events could cause real difficulty.
And there will be great budgetary prudence. In the absence of a budget voted by the Assembly, the Finance Permanent Secretary has powers to release certain limited funds, but no more than 95 per cent in cash terms of last year’s budget; moreover, there is no authority at present to raise the principal local tax, the rates (a property tax analogous to Council Tax).
Where do the talks now go? The process to date, and the British government’s role in it, has been criticised for incoherence and lack of inclusivity; for the absence of the Prime Minister; and for lack of full partnership between the two governments. And various participants (not just nationalist) have suggested the British government cannot be an impartial chair, especially in the light of Brexit.
Beyond government, there is talk of bringing in an outside chair, as has been done a number of times in the past. The most obvious candidates are former US Senator George Mitchell, who presided over the Good Friday Agreement talks – but he is some years out of active involvement with the process; and Dr Richard Haass, once a US Envoy to Northern Ireland who chaired an intensive enquiry into political hot potatoes in 2013 – but he was not able to get all-party buy in then, despite making intensive efforts, and he is now otherwise occupied.
But do Sinn Féin really want a return to devolution? The DUP continue to express doubt. Whether Sinn Féin know themselves is unclear. Having said that talks were over, they now say they are willing to talk. But they have reiterated their opposition to direct rule, saying a failure to reach agreement must mean further elections. This seems to involve a willingness to go on seeing Northern Ireland without any government – lack of concern for good government is something Sinn Féin are at times called out for.
Sinn Féin are focusing their demands purely on existing commitments, essentially around an Irish Language Act, a Bill of Rights, and alleged failures by the British government to deal with legacy issues. Would they plausibly want to bring devolved government in Northern Ireland down on such relatively narrow issues, and against considerable self-interest; are there broader issues in play; or is this another game of chicken?
Anyway, there is potentially a great deal of work involved in determining the content of measures fulfilling the ‘commitments’ – and Sinn Féin have said they were willing to talk about such issues. It is not clear such discussions could reach a resolution in a couple of weeks, even without an outside chair. So the benign scenario would involve the parties coming back to devolution, contingent on a new process – perhaps under an outside chair, perhaps nominated by the parties themselves rather than either or both governments – delivering an agreed outcome within a fixed timescale.
The talks process so far perhaps bears out the thesis that the British government lacks inclination, heft and positioning to bring about a resolution by itself. The Northern Ireland political class is short of new ideas too; and there is no sign that the US government is in any position to help, as at times before. Now really is the time for people within Northern Ireland, beyond politics, to make their voices heard coherently, as the divisive challenges of Brexit impend.
As to Brexit, in a letter to Mark Durkan MP the Brexit Secretary acknowledged that should Northern Ireland, in line with the Good Friday Agreement, vote by a majority in favour of a United Ireland, the UK government would honour its commitments enabling that to happen; and that in his view would amount to Northern Ireland becoming part of an existing EU state, rather than seeking to join the EU. It would be for the EU authorities, he acknowledged, to decide on the ‘procedural requirements’. Some saw this as a major concession; perhaps it is not much more than the British government saying it will honour its obligations. The Irish government will want to ensure that the UK’s departure arrangements include clear provision for Northern Ireland in those circumstances moving straight back into the EU. The letter might suggest the British government would be supportive, notwithstanding its professed unionism.
You can read Alan Whysall’s earlier blog post, ‘Following the break down of talks in Northern Ireland, what now?’, at this link.
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.