Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain


Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since.

A changing political landscape – and society 

Latterly, however, the failures of government – notably grave underperformance in the health service, far worse than in Great Britain, highlighted recently by strikes – have started to impinge on opinion.

Public opinion may also have been affected by the course taken by the government of Boris Johnson. He was acclaimed at the 2018 DUP conference for his resistance to the backstop. Last autumn, to unionist dismay, he negotiated a withdrawal agreement that means border controls in the Irish Sea and Northern Ireland being part of various EU regimes. This was the product of determination in Brussels and Dublin to avoid a hard border within the island, which would be economically disruptive and politically incendiary. And the agreement was passed by parliament with the support of all the English MPs that unionists once regarded as friends. The DUP was left with egg on its face, and lost all remaining leverage at Westminster in the election; Unionism appeared friendless.

Northern Ireland society is changing, with young people taking notably different attitudes. A survey earlier this year showed that for the first time, a majority of the population classified themselves as neither Unionist nor nationalist. And there are increasingly vocal elements of civic society, disenchanted with both major parties.

These factors fed into remarkable results in the general election – confirming a trend shown in earlier 2019 elections towards the emergence of the centre ground as a potentially decisive third force in Northern Ireland politics. Both main parties lost substantial vote share in December: the DUP lost seats, including that of its deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who had led the party’s Westminster contingent in the previous parliament. The Alliance party meanwhile doubled its vote share to become the third largest party, unexpectedly winning a seat. The Social Democratic and Labour Party gained two, meaning there is again a nationalist presence in Westminster (Sinn Féin MPs were elected in 2015 and 2017 but did not take their seats, due to their policy of abstentionism). 

The deal

And so, after the election, the main political parties resumed discussions on restoring devolution that had been taking place, on and off, for the last three years. They were strong-armed by the British and Irish governments, which in short order produced New Decade, New Approach (NDNA). All five major parties entered Government under the power-sharing arrangements, implicitly at least in line with NDNA, with none choosing to go into Opposition.

NDNA is said to be about a ‘new approach to government in Northern Ireland’:

  • There are measures addressing the abuses exposed through the RHI affair with strengthened drafts of the ministerial, civil service and special adviser codes to be produced, reinforcing accountability and transparency. And there is to be an enforcement mechanism to deal with breaches, including a new panel of Commissioners for Ministerial Standards. Further steps will be taken when the Inquiry into the affair reports, which is expected to happen soon.
  • Mechanisms will be changed to prevent a party pulling down the Executive abruptly, as in 2017 – though ultimately these measures cannot obviate the need, given current voting patterns, for the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree to work in government for it to be viable.
  • There are also (limited) changes to the Petition of Concern mechanism, a device for minority protection at times used by the DUP as a pocket veto on Assembly proceedings.
  • Identity and language issues are met by the establishment of no fewer than three quangos: an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression, a Commissioner for the Irish language, and a Commissioner for Ulster Scots language and culture; along with ‘official recognition’ of both languages. Draft legislation is appended.
  • There is substantial text on the priorities of the restored Executive, to feed into a new Programme for Government; and a commitment to ‘put public engagement at the heart of policy-making’.
  • There is extra money from London, and also some from Dublin, though the amounts are not specified. But with this comes closer London scrutiny: the money is accompanied by ‘stringent conditions’, there are to be regular reviews of performance, and an independent Fiscal Council. The attitudes to public money shown in the RHI affair make these hard for Northern Ireland parties to oppose.

This is in many ways a classic Northern Ireland political agreement: long (60 pages), with many commitments, often very vague; abundant quangos, strategies, codes and reviews; and extra money from London and Dublin as an inducement; all hammered out between the parties and governments behind closed doors.

Hope and fragility: will it succeed?

In the short term at least it will probably succeed, because politically there is no alternative: the main parties have sensed the public mood, know that they would suffer badly in Assembly elections if it failed and have set about government in a cooperative spirit. There are careers dependent on devolution. There is much to do, and money to spend. Personal connections and shared interests will calm the hostile rhetoric which has marked recent years. But lessons need to be learned or the new arrangements risk being very fragile

It is clear from the collapse of 2017 that good government is now essential to the public standing and ultimately stability of the ExecutiveThere are ethics and competence questions here, some addressed rather non-specifically in NDNA – the resulting changes will need to be for real. The report of the inquiry into RHI is imminent, and may have significant recommendations (and could also cause significant political casualties).

But beyond that the Executive needs to find common purpose, do policy properly, project a vision for a better Northern Ireland, make difficult decisions, and have real engagement with people outside the political arena. This requires a profound change in outlook among politicians, and the bureaucracy; indeed in the wider political culture.  

The recent tribulations of the health service are an instance of what goes wrong when there is not a serious focus on government: NHS reform has been dodged for many years. Is there a willingness to put this right, beyond the old universal remedy of seeking extra funds from the Treasury? Is there the political interest in developing a longer term vision for Northern Ireland (irrespective of constitutional status)? The interplay of good government and politics in Northern Ireland will be the subject of a further blog. The underpinnings of the political settlement have become more fragile. 

Polarisation of opinion may dog it. The centre ground is looking for compromise, but attitudes elsewhere have hardened in the last three years. This may make working together tougher. 

Nobody trusts London: its conduct in the last three years has shaken the previously quite widespread belief that it was a safe pair of hands for government purposes; and the less widespread one that it worried much about Ireland. Julian Smith as Secretary of State has done a good deal to repair its reputation since taking over from Karen Bradley last summer, but people may not be so persuaded that the centre in Whitehall much understands or cares.

British-Irish relations need attention. The potential threat from Brexit to open borders within the island, to the economy of both parts, and the rhetoric at times coming out of London have seriously offended many. At times, the two governments have not been able to lead political process in Northern Ireland as in the past – though Smith has clearly worked closely with Dublin. 

Brexit could yet derail things. It is unclear how the Great Britain/Northern Ireland border will operate under the Withdrawal Agreement, but it is inevitable there will be some controls. There is much discontent with Brexit in Northern Ireland: the Assembly in its first days voted unanimously to withhold consent from the withdrawal bill. Difficult decisions may be needed that will stretch the Executive. A no deal Brexit, if agreement cannot be reached, reopens the whole question of the border, which could ultimately make devolved government unacceptable to nationalism.

Political expectations may have to adapt to the centre ground now being a real player, having – more effectively than at any time since the foundation of Northern Ireland – broken the grip of tribal politics. If this continues changes may be needed to the arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement which disadvantage the parties not registered as nationalist or unionist. In any event, the centre may end up being the arbiter of key issues – including the border.

But Irish unity may remain a live, and difficult, issue. Nationalist ambitions have been reinforced. Renewed pressure for Scottish independence may feed into this and vice versa. But this is a dangerous road: there is no clear route to a United Ireland. The Irish unity proposition is essentially undefined: nobody knows what a United Ireland might look like, or how new arrangements might attract the consensus support in Northern Ireland that has always been held essential for successful government as was pointed out last year by the widely lamented Seamus Mallon. It is clear that any route to Irish unity will be long and punctuated by recurrent threats to stability.

Mindful of this, the Taoiseach as well as the leader of the main Irish opposition party Fianna Fáil, have again recently emphasised that a border poll is not for now; but if politics turns bad, it may not be possible to resist it. The Irish election to be held on 8 February is unlikely to have significant impact on Dublin’s approach, barring the still unlikely contingency – though polling is suggesting a strong growth in support for them – of Sinn Féin forming part of a governing coalition. But there is also little thought emerging from unionism about alternatives more attractive to those alienated by developments of the last few years.

Securing the foundations of the Agreement 

The fundamentals of the settlement need TLC. But securing change short of the next crisis may be difficult. Both main parties might sensibly recognise that for the future they need to extend their appeal beyond their own narrow community. That may be necessary to contain the loss of votes. It would certainly be necessary in the context of a border poll. But it would mark a great shift from how they have operated, and what their bases expect. There is little sign of it as yet. 

Extending appeal would sensibly involve enhanced measures of mutual respect, carrying through the principles of the Agreement. On the part of unionists, that might take the form of owning the principle of parity of esteem for the British and Irish identities – which may ultimately be essential to the maintenance of the union – rather than merely making grudging concessions when there is no alternative. And republicans, who demand that the Agreement’s ultimate prescription on constitutional status should be respected, might show full regard for the status it at present delivers, as by taking their seats at Westminster.

Sensibly, also, there would be thinking about further compromise and halfway houses: about ways eliminating sectarianism in Northern Ireland society; about ways of improving and thickening relations within these islands; perhaps indeed about constitutional status, where the centre ground, though quite possibly disenchanted with the United Kingdom relationship and especially its government and favourable to intensify cross-border activity, is unlikely to favour dangerous leaps in the dark.

It is to be hoped that London might recognise the value of statesmanship in Ireland. It is said that Dominic Cummings has told colleagues he does not care if Northern Ireland falls into the sea. Even at the level of realpolitik, this is not a sensible position for a government wishing to avoid trouble for itself. Northern Ireland will not fall cleanly into the sea, it will drag others with it, perhaps creating many and far-reaching waves. Ultimately doing the right thing in Ireland can enhance political reputations, as Tony Blair found. 

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About the author

Alan Whysall is a former civil servant and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He is a Trustee of Pivotal, a new public policy think tank for Northern Ireland and a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of IrelandThe views expressed in this post are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group of Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland as a whole.

2 thoughts on “Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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