In Northern Ireland’s centenary year, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement settlement may, suggests Alan Whysall, be under its greatest threat to date, as the Northern Ireland Protocol engages. The government in London is not well placed to cope. A border poll on Irish unity, on which a Unit Working Group has produced an interim report, is now much discussed. This is the first in a two-part series: today Alan examines the changing political landscape of Northern Ireland. In the second post, to be published tomorrow, Alan will consider the possibilities for the future, arguing that giving new life to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is now essential, whatever the final constitutional destiny
Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions were rescued from their collapse in 2017 by the New Decade, New Approach deal (NDNA) early last year. But the underlying tensions continue: the two largest parties, DUP and Sinn Féin, often disagree publicly and sometimes appear barely able to work together.
The Executive at first handled COVID well, but Sinn Féin leaders’ participation in July in a mass funeral parade for a Republican lost the Executive much authority; the influence of DUP hardliners inhibited restrictions being maintained in late 2020, when the situation seriously worsened.
Brexit, as it has operated since January under the Northern Ireland Protocol, has raised tensions further (NI remains in the Single Market for goods, with increased checks on goods coming from Great Britain, avoiding a border within the island). Shortages in shops have in reality been limited, but implications for business may be severe, especially as grace periods end.
Unionists from the start sought derogations from the Protocol under Article 16. More extreme elements of the unionist family, paramilitary-linked and political, issued warnings, and called for ‘disruption’. The EU Commission, under pressure over vaccine supplies, exacerbated matters when it proposed derogations from the Protocol – though it reversed itself within hours. The DUP then launched a campaign to end the Protocol, though with little suggestion of what plausibly would replace it. Border inspections were for a time suspended over apparent threats to workers.
Brexit is likely to divide politics leading up to Assembly elections in May 2022. The Assembly will hold a vote in 2024, when it will decide by simple majority whether key parts of the Protocol remain in force. Barring drastic change in voting patterns, or disasters in the Protocol’s operation, it is likely to be upheld by centrist and nationalist parties, who see the alternatives as worse. Further such votes will follow on a four-yearly basis.
Meanwhile the debate about unity has intensified. Community groups are pushing vigorously for an early border poll, to unionist unease. The UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call a poll if he or she thinks there would be a majority for unity (and may do so at any time).
The landscape is changing
Changes in the wider landscape may impact on politics, too. The 2021 census is thought likely to report Catholics outnumbering Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time. The results must be read with care and the Working Group suggested little direct impact on the unification question. But this comes after the loss of other unionist majorities, in the overall vote, in the Assembly, and in MPs. Maintaining the Union is now a matter of persuasion.
The unionist psyche is under threat too from demonstrations of how little affinity the rest of the UK feels for them. Recent polling shows that only 31% of English voters would be upset by Irish unity, and that number is even lower in Scotland. George Osborne, in a forthright piece on the future of the Union much reported in Northern Ireland, saw it ‘heading for the exit door’ and believed most in Great Britain would not care; Scotland’s departure from the Union, by contrast, would be ‘national suicide’, to be resisted at all costs.
Scottish developments will of course hang over the Northern Ireland scene. An independence referendum would unsettle unionism, probably not in a constructive way, and give heart to nationalism. Refusal would feed into a narrative of London everywhere suppressing the popular will, in order to sustain a disintegrating UK.
Meanwhile, there are serious economic, social and public service problems which have rarely received proper attention at Stormont. The health service was struggling, far more even than elsewhere, before COVID. The Northern Ireland productive economy is small, struggled after the financial crisis of 2008, and has been especially hard hit by COVID. Lack of attention to ordinary government issues has always been a weakness of the political culture, seen in the dysfunctions exposed in the Renewable Heat Incentive affair. There were commitments in New Decade, New Approach directed at these problems, but largely neglected since.
The 2022 Assembly elections may themselves produce further upheavals. Parliamentary elections in 2019 showed a strong rise in the middle ground, as both the DUP and Sinn Féin votes shrank. Recent polling confirms this trend; and shows the unionist vote fragmenting towards hardliners in Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and away from the DUP, whose leader, First Minister Arlene Foster, appears under internal threat.
A larger centre ground may mean pressure for change in the rules that guarantee to representatives of the nationalist and unionist traditions rights not accorded to the non-aligned. This would mark a profound change in the nature of Northern Ireland politics.
But if the DUP obtained fewer seats than Sinn Féin, as the polling may suggest, the latter would nominate the First Minister, and the DUP the deputy First Minister. The two offices are coequal in powers, but whether the unionist base would accept the apparent decline in status has long been doubted. A standoff threatens. Seepage of DUP votes to the TUV would polarise politics still further.
The risk of collapse: is London ready?
It must now be a real possibility that the institutions will again stumble. The brittleness in politics was shown at the weekend, when both main parties heavily criticised the police over a sensitive but minor incident, with Sinn Féin talking about a crisis in policing. Cross-community acceptance of policing was perhaps the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement’s most striking achievement, an essential foundation for stable politics.
The main parties fear the electorate would not forgive them a collapse; it has seemed especially unthinkable in the COVID context. But as in 2017, politics may run out of control. NDNA provided for changes to make the structures harder to bring down – not yet enacted at Westminster, apparently for want of parliamentary time.
Secretaries of State, in partnership with the Irish government, have traditionally worked to keep the settlement functioning. NDNA was widely seen as a remarkable success of the then Secretary of State, Julian Smith, who was however promptly dismissed because of Westminster politics.
But such brokerage requires trust between governments and with the parties. That is never perfect, but London is now more thoroughly mistrusted on both sides than ever. Unionism – in both the DUP and UUP – regards itself as betrayed over the Protocol. Nationalists see lack of concern and understanding for Northern Ireland in London, gamesmanship over Northern Ireland issues in Europe, and partisanship evidenced by the recent Conservative–DUP Westminster alliance.
The Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, who has recently bemused all sides by insisting there is no border in the Irish Sea, has the lowest approval in a recent poll of any Northern Ireland political figure (-69), with 4% believing his performance ‘good’ or ‘great’. London–Dublin relations, meanwhile, have been especially poor in recent months, chiefly over Brexit; Dublin’s relations with unionists have also deteriorated.
An early test for London would come if an opinion poll suggested there was a majority for unity. Most polls are conducted online; we proposed in the Working Group report that limited reliance should be placed on them, when other polls and surveys, and election results, show significantly less support; and that evidence should be assessed over time. But the Secretary of State must convince nationalists that he reaches decisions with integrity, and at present he would struggle. Developments here, too, could shake devolution.
So Northern Ireland may be at its most volatile and dangerous politically since the paramilitary ceasefires of the 1990s. If the British government does not measure up to its responsibilities, matters may quickly deteriorate further. Tomorrow’s blog considers where more positive politics might come from.
The 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.
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About the author
Alan Whysall is a former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He is the founder and 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 Ireland. The 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.