Northern Ireland talks: is a deal in prospect?

Northern Ireland remains without a government. Dialogue has resumed, but the climate is conflictual, and exacerbated by Brexit. The foundations of the Good Friday Agreement may now be seriously shaken. There is some talk of a deal being in prospect, but room for doubt that anything lasting can be achieved. Alan Whysall provides an update and suggests that handling of Northern Ireland once again needs the priority, care, understanding and courage it received from previous governments.

My previous blog set the scene: two polarising elections – to the Northern Ireland Assembly and then Westminster – have failed so far to restore devolved government, following its collapse at the beginning of the year; rather, they reinforced the position of the two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, at the expense of moderates. The nationalist vote, which had been shrinking, has bounced back, which along with the prospect of Brexit has renewed the focus of Irish nationalism on unity. Since Sinn Féin do not take their seats in the Commons and the SDLP no longer has any seats, it is now without any nationalist voice.

Where are we now?

At Westminster, following the election, the Conservative party and DUP reached a confidence and supply agreement. The DUP will support the government throughout this parliament on votes on confidence and finance, as well as Brexit and national security. However, the DUP are to ‘have no involvement in the UK government’s role in political talks in Northern Ireland’. The government will provide extra funding for Northern Ireland totalling about £1 billion over the coming years. It seems to be linking the extra spending to resumed devolution, the DUP denying such a linkage. The deal has been much criticised, Moody’s citing it among reasons for downgrading the UK’s debt rating. Gina Miller and others are mounting a legal challenge, with unclear prospects of success.

Meanwhile the civil service in Northern Ireland, with no ministers to give it direction, aims to ensure ’business as usual‘, but is unable to launch significant new programmes, projects or policies. No budget has been set for this year. The Secretary of State has laid down ‘indicative’ allocations, presumably by way of giving political cover, since he does not have legal authority of any kind over the devolved domain.

According to the Secretary of State, if the situation ‘is not resolved within a relatively short number of weeks will require greater political decision-making from Westminster… to begin with legislation [for] a Budget”.

In that context, he would consider whether Assembly members should still be paid, since they do not meet – one of the few levers the government really has. The DUP leader Arlene Foster, though, found this offensive. Is this a veto?

The Secretary of State spoke of a ‘glidepath’ to greater UK government intervention, implying perhaps, though he did not use the term, a reversion to direct rule, the classic regime of which was considered in an earlier blog.

Strains are emerging between the British and Irish governments over this: after the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said there could be no British-only direct rule, the British government sharply riposted that there would be no joint authority, which Coveney had not suggested. Some saw the hand of the DUP here. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the minister is right – Dublin would have substantial rights to make representations about British government actions during direct rule, though without prejudice to sovereignty.

That would be enormously controversial. Direct rule would also make it hard for the British Government not to fulfil the commitment under the St Andrews agreement of 2006 to introduce an Irish Language Act – it has hitherto argued that it was powerless here, since the relevant powers were devolved in 2007.

Brexit is also now a serious running sore between the unionist and nationalist parties, and between the two governments. Movement of people is not the issue: negotiation on maintaining the Common Travel Area is apparently going well. But customs controls are highly problematic. The government produced a paper in August, proposing to avoid any new physical boundary between the two parts of Ireland, with various appeals to new technology.

Many suggested the proposals were unrealistic; some, that they were about transferring to the EU blame for a border that leaving the customs union makes inevitable. The EU continues to accord a great deal of prominence to the Irish border issue, as one of the three preliminary matters to be resolved: its later paper asserted that the responsibility for finding solutions was the UK’s, since its departure created the problem.

There was also something of this in the reaction of the Irish government: the new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, less patient than his predecessor, made clear that he was ‘not going to design a border for Brexiteers’. The Irish government has urged the UK as a whole to be open to argument about the form of Brexit, at least to the extent of remaining within the customs union, or something equivalent. There is growing resentment in Ireland at Brexit’s impact on them, East-West as well as North-South (lightly encapsulated as in ‘the British have shot themselves in our foot/are trying to have their cake and eat ours’ etc, but increasingly felt). Meanwhile some urge ‘special status’ or a ‘special economic zone’ for Northern Ireland, often meaning it should be closer to the customs union and single market than the rest of the UK – but that creates the prospect, anathema to Unionists, of borders down the Irish Sea.

The Prime Minister’s Florence speech was no more specific on Ireland, merely reiterating there should be ‘no physical infrastructure‘. Some see a retreat here, indeed, from earlier government insistence that the border should be ‘frictionless’ and ‘seamless’.

More than just another Northern Ireland stand-off?

Negotiations between the parties have resumed after the summer, and there have been periodic onrushes of optimism about resuming devolution, another this week. Is this just another crisis like 2015 and 2014 and others before, that will be resolved with some sort of fudge, and still further money from London? There are grounds for doubt: the context has changed for the worse.

  • Sinn Féin have called for immediate talks, but maintained red lines, especially over an Irish Language Act but also equal marriage, which make resumption unlikely. An initiative by Arlene Foster, proposing resumed devolution in parallel with discussions about language issues, was rebuffed with lightning speed.
  • While SF’s leadership speak of their desire for resumed devolution, people close to the party speak of ‘existential’ reasons why it cannot happen in the short-term. Within their camp there is clear discontent about what has been achieved for nationalists, despite significant gestures of reconciliation.
  • Some in the DUP, buoyed up by their agreement with the Conservative party, have called for direct rule to be ‘brought on’; of withdrawing from talks if the Irish government suggests solutions; of Sinn Féin seeking humiliation of unionists.
  • Brexit has aggravated matters, but Brexit issues seem not to feature prominently in the DUP-Sinn Fèin dialogue. A year ago, there were possibilities, albeit limited, of compromise, leading to the joint letter of the FM and DFM seeking essentially a ‘soft Brexit’. But there seems no willingness for that now, each playing to its own constituency – Sinn Féin using Brexit as a vehicle for Irish unity arguments, the DUP out of gut instinct cheerleading for a ‘hard Brexit’ despite the impact on politics and the economy. And hence at a time when the EU in particular is anxious to listen, there is no Northern Ireland view on key Brexit issues, indeed little coherent debate.
  • And the will to make the system work may not be what it was. With Paisley, McGuinness, Robinson, and before that Trimble, there were big players whose main objective, at times at least, was to drive forward with politics, and more broadly reconciliation, taking big risks. There are not such players now. And people working in devolved government may have lost heart, indeed, in a joyless, frustrating slog. There was little attention during devolution to good government, especially where it involved difficult decisions; hence it has had few achievements.
  • And so there has been deep public dissatisfaction with devolution, and politics. At the time of the Good Friday agreement, the public then felt new hope, and were willing for politicians to move out of traditional Not so now.
  • Overall, the political rhetoric is much changed, reminiscent of pre-Good Friday agreement days. There is little talk any more from the major parties about working together. Each is addressing its own constituency, and the effect is to ramp up division.
  • With limited regard for the future. In the Sinn Féin talk of a united Ireland, it is true, there are concessions to the thought it must make some appeal to unionists, if perhaps not very thoroughgoing. On the DUP side there is little apparent recognition that they may in a border poll, perhaps not too far away, need to persuade Catholics that the union is preferable to a united Ireland. The absence of any reflective capacity within contemporary unionism is striking.

The immediate prospects

The challenges and uncertainties of coming months do not make devolution attractive for Sinn Féin: not least being at odds with its government partners on Brexit and facing the imposition of a border in Ireland against its will, with its views ignored in London. And its main focus now is the Irish election probably coming next year. So its posture until then at least may be of ardently seeking resumed devolved government but actually blocking it.

Weighing against this, both parties ultimately need devolution. Sinn Féin because entrenching British rule in Northern Ireland pending the highly uncertain prospect of unity is not what Republicanism gave up the war for. The DUP because they have always believed in devolution, and have a large cadre of people whose livelihoods depend on it.

And both are aware that direct rule, which would seem like the abandonment for the time being of an attempt to recreate power-sharing government, would be liable to set loose a great deal of negativity, making a return to power-sharing extremely difficult. A bad Brexit would add to the fractures, sapping what remains of the consensus that underpinned the Good Friday agreement.

Few suggest that street or paramilitary violence follows immediately in its wake, but its prospects are greatly favoured, if only years down the line.

The British government should be aware of this too, because it would add greatly to its headaches. But attention at the centre seems to be essentially elsewhere, with Europe perhaps devoting more attention to Irish issues than it does. Having taken some decades to learn again about Ireland and nationalism, it might appear that the British system has forgotten it in a few years, oblivious to the slow burn destruction of the political settlement that previous governments painfully built as one of their key priorities. London has lost further credibility as a broker in the political dispute through the alliance with the DUP and its performance on Brexit.

Is a deal possible?

So is a political deal possible now? Sinn Féin like to surprise us and the run up to Westminster intervention may increase pressure. A straightforward political deal based on token measures and rhetoric, like Fresh Start, might well just take us to another crisis in a year’s time, indeed stability is probably beyond wishing for with Brexit in the air – but that would be lesser evil.

There may be a more favourable opening for a lasting settlement a little way down the line – if Brexit turns out not to be calamitous, if it becomes obvious that early Irish unity is unattainable. The best hope at present may be to keep the political flame alive, and prepare for more promising times ahead.

Either way, making devolution last is likely to need a major effort, and big new ideas. To break the current deadlocks – on issues like language and marriage, and dealing with the past on which work continues; but also to focus Northern Ireland politics on real issues to do with the economy and social fabric, where there are acute problems but also much promise.

It is hard to see the political machine of Northern Ireland in the present juncture bring about this shift by itself. The culture is too far locked into established narratives, too regarding of hardliners.

It is also difficult to see the two governments being able to move the situation on alone, as they have in the past, given the British government’s standing and the strains in the relationship. (Although the form any transition takes may well be a package blessed by the governments and enacted into law at Westminster, to clear the decks in the Assembly).

Outside mediators might be able to create the atmosphere in which the parties could move out of their rooted positions, as George Mitchell did, and later Richard Haass. But finding a suitable mediator may not be easy: someone who understands the situation is acceptable to the parties, and willing to serve.

Ultimately, as suggested in earlier blogs, there is a real need for ideas and leadership from within Northern Ireland society, beyond politics. But despite valiant efforts, this has had little impact so far.

Where does the government go?

Some London intervention is now legally inevitable. Barring devolution in the next few weeks, the administration in Northern Ireland will come near to collapse if Westminster does not fix a budget.

And there is an overdue requirement on the Secretary of State to call a further Assembly election. Will he? The DUP might like it: the Westminster result, and more recent polling, suggests a more polarised electorate, which might win them more seats. But it is hard to see any real justification – any way in which an election brings agreement on devolved government closer, if there is none, or advances matters if there is.

If there is no deal, direct rule is probably not now the answer, given the aggravation it would cause. It may seem irresponsible to leave Northern Ireland without government, and acutely uncomfortable for those working in the administration. But it is doubtful how much good government could be done in the next couple of years with the preoccupations of Brexit and London’s authority seriously contested. Avoiding it keeps the onus on the parties to agree and find a way forward rather than play even more to their own galleries. Westminster would have to intervene at times, but by exception when clearly urgent.

The consequences of a bad Brexit for the two parts of Ireland could greatly complicate not only the Northern Ireland settlement, but future relations with the EU. This surely deserves a higher priority that it has achieved so far, indeed a recognition that Irish issues are a serious enough risk that they might alter the direction of Brexit. And that that sticking close to Dublin is advisable for the same long-term reasons.

Sensible governments would also be encouraging outsiders who may be able to contribute to the architecture of the settlement, if not this year then next – recognising the limitations of their own position, and the positive role that mediators and civil society pressure have played in the past.


On the most favourable assumptions, devolved government would be riven with dispute. But it would be a great deal better than the worst case, involving the slipping away of the political settlement first pursued in the early 1970s, and agreed 25 years later.

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.

3 thoughts on “Northern Ireland talks: is a deal in prospect?

  1. Pingback: The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what went wrong? | The Constitution Unit Blog

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