The general election result has done little to halt the steady unravelling of the political situation in Northern Ireland, and may accelerate it. In this post Alan Whysall discusses the implications of the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP, expected to be agreed in the coming days, and what might happen next.
As Theresa May reaches out to Northern Ireland for support, the political situation there has been steadily unravelling. A pact with the DUP – which has been on the point of emerging for several days, and may appear today, or may not – is unlikely to stop the unravelling. It could accelerate it – not necessarily, but unless there are changes in outlook in Northern Ireland politics, not least from the British government, we risk losing many of the gains that have followed from the Good Friday Agreement.
The unravelling started a while ago…
Sinn Féin, which along with the DUP had constituted the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, pulled the plug on it in January. Ostensibly this was because of financial scandal involving the First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, in an earlier ministerial life. But the underlying causes had more to do with the way that the DUP treated nationalism, and Brexit.
An election to the Northern Ireland Assembly followed in March. It was highly polarising. Although there have been existential crises in the life of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, elections have generally been conducted in a spirit of renewed commitment to work together. And voters increasingly came to like and expect that language – even if there was increasing disillusion at the performance of the devolved institutions.
There was little talk of working together in this Assembly election, however. The reversion in recent months to rhetoric redolent of the days before the Agreement has been marked. Arlene Foster’s spirited attacks on Sinn Féin in fact contributed to a strengthening of its vote – the overall nationalist vote had been flagging in recent elections, but now dramatically bounced back. There was also some strengthening of the middle ground, but the more moderate Unionist and nationalist parties the UUP and SDLP did less well.
Attempts to resume power-sharing government followed. It is said that progress was made in individual areas of dispute. But there is also much doubt that Sinn Féin will actually permit it to happen. Its ostensible demands are related to equality, the Irish language and Foster’s position in the light of the financial scandal. But other factors may be at play.
Brexit, on top of the other grievances, makes participation in government in the next couple of years very difficult for nationalists: they would risk presiding over the creation of new divisions in Ireland. Northern Ireland politics is thoroughly split on the issue: the DUP were for leaving (though many speculate that leadership figures including Foster were personally opposed); all the other main parties favoured remaining, and Remain won in Northern Ireland by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. Apart from a single statement last August in which they DUP and Sinn Féin collectively called, albeit in rather vague terms, for a soft Brexit, the power-sharing Executive had been able to agree no policy position. But in any event, there was no sign that anyone in London was seriously listening (a grievance also heard from other devolved administrations).
Added to that, Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin deputy First Minister, left the stage. He was the person who, since the departure from politics of his two DUP partners in re-establishing devolved government, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, had done most to push the cause of working together in the recent past. He resigned in January through ill-health, and shortly afterwards died.
Gerry Adams, who appears largely to call the shots despite the appointment of a new leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, has never appeared as committed as McGuinness to making Northern Ireland work. Sinn Féin has always been taken to need devolved government in Northern Ireland politically: it is important to their narrative that pending national reunification, they have their hand on the tiller of Northern Ireland affairs, not the British government. But now it has the higher ambition of being in government in Dublin the need to compromise in government in Northern Ireland is sometimes inconvenient in campaigning.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has been in the extraordinary position for the last few months that the civil service has been governing alone, with no political figure empowered to give it direction. It has had to do so on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis: new initiatives would be constitutionally and legally doubtful. In the absence of the agreements necessary to establish a new devolved government, further Assembly elections should have been called, but Westminster legislation has put off the deadline, now until 29 June.
The general election and beyond …
No one suggested a further election was helpful in the Northern Ireland context. It effectively froze all work on resuming devolved government.
And the results show still further polarisation, with the DUP and Sinn Féin having in parliamentary terms annihilated the more moderate parties. There is a more deeply sectarian political context in Northern Ireland than for many years. Since Sinn Féin do not take up their parliamentary seats, a policy they are most unlikely to change, and the SDLP has been wiped out, nationalism is now unrepresented at Westminster.
How far anyone has a plan for going forward is unclear. Sinn Féin are the pivotal player, but whether there is a grand design behind their actions, or whether each move is merely opportunistic, is hard to discern. The DUP has learned the lesson that attacking the other side too hard is counter-productive, but at the same time has been very successful in bringing people, including significant numbers who previously voted for other Unionist parties, or did not vote, to the barricades in defence of the Union with Great Britain. The Union is in fact in no immediate danger whatever, but Sinn Féin demands for a referendum on the border have heightened the supposed threat.
It is certainly not clear that the British government has been working to a plan. The centre under the present Prime Minister has seemed generally unconcerned with Northern Ireland, perhaps to a greater degree than any British government for 50 years. The only exception to this lack of interest has been occasional overtures to the DUP, motivated by the thought that their votes might at some point be useful in advancing the Brexit agenda. It emerges this week that in the context of the 2015 general election, the Conservatives and DUP drafted, though did not formally sign off, a co-operation agreement.
The Irish government thinks Northern Ireland issues through because they have consequences approaching the existential for the Irish state. But they have other grave distractions. The new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, installed yesterday, leads a minority government, and an election seems very likely this year or next. And the wider implications of Brexit loom larger for Ireland than any of the other 27. But the new circumstances in Northern Ireland have also affected attitudes to it in the South: there is now much more talk about a United Ireland. And that will continue until the election, because the other parties do not wish to be outshone in nationalist ardour by Sinn Féin.
Talks on resuming devolved government have now started up again. There may be straightforward agreement on resumed devolved government. It seems a slightly distant prospect, though Northern Ireland political crises are subject to abrupt mood swings, and this week we are rather less despairing.
A resumption might be contingent: the parties going in to an Executive, but with discussions on some of the fundamentals, especially Brexit, continuing, and therefore with the prospect overhanging it of further withdrawal later. The discussions might proceed under an independent chair, appointed by the parties.
But what if there is no agreement? A couple of months ago Sinn Féin insisted there would have to be a further election – but that was before the parliamentary one. The DUP might actually now favour one, hoping to repeat its general election wipeout of the UUP. Brenda from Bristol’s local cousins will be aghast. In any event, it could hardly be held until September.
The alternative is generally taken to be direct rule, the transfer of executive authority temporarily to the Secretary of State, with order making powers in place of Assembly legislation. New Westminster authority would be needed for this. The reappointed Northern Ireland Secretary has now said that the 29 June deadline is final and immobile (although the Northern Ireland political class has a cavalier way with final deadlines). And he implied, without quite saying, that direct rule would immediately follow if there is no agreement.
Can there be any alternative to this – ultimately, someone has to be in charge of government, surely? But the Irish government, perhaps reflecting the new atmosphere in Dublin, has in the recent past joined Sinn Féin in making clear its opposition to direct rule. Introducing it would be a major strain in the relationship between the two governments. That would be serious. Since before the Good Friday Agreement, the governments working together have been the motor of political progress in Northern Ireland.
It might be prudent to seek a halfway house for a few months: legal authority for the British government to intervene by exception in urgent cases, for example to ensure budgetary regularity or cope with emergencies, but otherwise allowing the present regime to go on. Even though the assumption that having a government is a luxury, to be allowed only when arguments about the Irish languages and other such matters have been resolved, would seem a strange one in most other parts of the world…
The impact of the Conservative-DUP agreement
We do not know what may be in the agreement with the DUP.
Whatever happens, nationalists – and others – will have even more doubts that there is a level playing field. The firm commitment to the Union of the last Prime Minister and the present one – earlier governments were neutral as between the Union and a United Ireland – and the growing suspicion about backroom dealings between the Conservatives and DUP have already changed the atmosphere. They make it harder for the British Secretary of State to carry credibility as honest broker in talks between the parties, and more generally sew doubts about his ‘rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people’ that the Good Friday Agreement requires. A government, and a Secretary of State, overtly dependent on DUP backing will have an even harder time.
Much of the DUP shopping list for a deal may be for money or other economic advantage, which if it is even-handedly distributed will not be a problem in Northern Ireland (though there is much room for the argument that the last thing Northern Ireland needs is more public money).
But previous DUP lists have also included items, particularly around the legacy of the Troubles, which could cause much difficulty, and especially since these issues are under discussion in Belfast currently. Unless it wishes to give Sinn Féin an excuse for staying out, while it might table such issues, it will probably not press them.
Whether the agreement will influence Brexit questions is uncertain. The DUP, though supposedly ardent takers-back of control, will also not want cross-border trading links, on which many in Northern Ireland depend, to be impeded. Their manifesto pulls in both directions, and sources close to the party have indicated a strong appetite for both having and their eating cake, withdrawing from the single market and the customs union but retaining the benefits. It is everybody’s objective, indeed, to avoid a hard border, and controls on people can probably be avoided. If the UK leaves the single market and the customs union, it may be materially impossible to do without controls on movements of goods, and the EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has given warning of this. The DUP will probably not be dogmatic (nor will HMG agreed to have its hands tied in European negotiations): promises of support for people in Northern Ireland will matter most.
Do we move on, or do we move back?
It is possible to imagine deals whose substance should not give the other parties in Northern Ireland serious difficulty. But the privileged relationship still may. It is not clear that we will move out of the political stand-off soon.
But the longer it continues, the more the forces of division latent within each community emerge. It took a very great deal of effort to put power-sharing together, first in 1999, and after it collapsed three years later, finally again in 2007. If it falls over again now, it may be very hard to resume anything until the other side of the Brexit issue at least, and perhaps not then.
And if we move to direct rule by a British government dependent for its existence on Northern Ireland unionism, there is liable to be resistance. There will not be an immediate return to widescale terrorism or street disorder. But all recent Northern Ireland history suggests that a political vacuum encourages both. This serves no one’s interests.
Two sorts of change in outlook are needed. Among the political players, it is time for more mutual respect, of the kind that has in the past enabled the Good Friday Agreement to function best.
Starting with the British government. It needs to recognise the reality that the way it is perceived has changed, and would be further changed by a deal with the DUP, so that it will not be regarded as a clearly impartial negotiator: if mediation is needed, it must look outside. It might also, starting at the top, tried to show some greater understanding of nationalism and the principle of parity of esteem between the British and Irish identities in the Good Friday Agreement. And it needs to work to the fullest with the Irish government. There are signs, as this piece is submitted, that there may be changes in these directions: the Northern Ireland political parties have all been invited to No 10 today, a novelty, and the outgoing Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who in many of the discussions on resumed devolution has been accepted by the parties as chair, rather than the British government, is to focus exclusively on that role.
As for the parties, for the DUP there is a real chance to rebuild nationalist confidence, something Foster had been focusing on, by clearly using their influence under any pact in a nonpartisan way, and rigorously avoiding triumphalism. And for Sinn Féin there is an opportunity to show that they really do want Northern Ireland to work.
But then, a message heard in these blogs before, wider society in Northern Ireland also needs to take a more active role. People in Northern Ireland have been apt to look to the British, Irish, and at times American governments to provide correctives to their political and economic woes. Increasingly, it is unrealistic to expect assistance from those quarters. But it is not clear that the Northern Ireland political class can resolve things by itself either: whatever the constructive intentions of individuals, the environment in which it operates is too tied into the old debates. Getting back to devolved government is a first step, but it could easily come down again in the absence of a forward-looking political agenda. Northern Ireland needs to find the leadership within its own civic society to move the public dialogue on in more constructive directions. This is starting, but it needs to happen fast.
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.