Not for the first time in recent memory, Northern Irish politics is in flux, the UK government’s Brexit deal is causing ructions and the power-sharing institutions are on the brink of collapse. Alan Whysall assesses the current crisis and argues that the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are at serious risk of crumbling.
Northern Ireland appears headed for further political turbulence, and it is not clear that devolved government will survive. Two steps within 24 hours by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), currently the largest party in the Assembly, have triggered this.
On Thursday afternoon, the DUP First Minister (FM) of Northern Ireland, Paul Givan, announced that he would resign his office on Friday morning over the Protocol, although his resignation letter was short on specifics.
A couple of years ago, the DUP leadership was suggesting that, notwithstanding additional border checks in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland should make the best of the Protocol, which gives it free access for goods to the single markets of both the EU and the UK. But the party was losing support in polling both to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, and to the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – which continues. Arlene Foster was ousted as leader and First Minister last year, and Edwin Poots became leader, lasting three weeks before he himself was removed, to be replaced by Jeffrey Donaldson. The party has become increasingly strident in its demands for the replacement of the Protocol in its present form, and since last summer Donaldson has been threatening to collapse the institutions over the issue.
Nevertheless, tangentially, the timing of the FM’s resignation may not have been planned – indeed it comes at a time when reports are that negotiations with the EU were going well. The complicating subplot is that Poots is himself fighting within the DUP to retain his seat in the Assembly, since Donaldson is seeking to return from Westminster to the constituency also represented by Poots and Givan, which is unlikely to return three DUP members. The FM resignation overshadows the infighting. On such factors may the future of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement turn.
Poots’ decision on the border checks is questionably lawful. The Northern Ireland Attorney General, Brenda King, appears to have advised last year that checks were required by law. Poots acted on the advice, of counsel of his own choice, King’s predecessor John Larkin, who has appeared in unionist-led litigation against the Protocol. The checks have in fact not ceased while officials ‘consider… the wider implications of fulfilling the Minister’s request’. Legal proceedings are, inevitably, under way. Civil servants are in an exposed position, aggravated by an extremist campaign about an alleged ‘elite nationalist network’ preparing a ‘constitutional coup’.
Givan’s resignation means that Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill also ceases to be deputy First Minister, as required by law. Since there is no functioning Executive, a number of planned decisions will not go ahead, though departmental ministers remain in office.
And if by the end of next week replacements have not been nominated, the Secretary of State, under the current law, would be obliged to set a date for an Assembly election. An election is anyway due on 5 May, and it would probably be lawful to stick to that date – though Sinn Féin at least seem to prefer an earlier election.
The law may change. The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill, due to go through its final parliamentary stage on Monday and come into effect immediately after Royal Assent is granted, would prolong the period in which discussions could go on before an election. The bill is a (very late arriving) upshot of the New Decade, New Approach deal by which devolution was restored in early 2020. If it receives Royal Assent before the end of next week, it would appear to mean that an election before 5 May was not possible. But its chief relevance is to negotiations after the election.
London appeared surprised by the Poots announcement – though it had been well flagged for some days. It at first suggested that this was all a matter for the devolved authorities – a curious position as regards international agreements, which bind the UK as a whole, and which the UK government can enforce under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It later said that it was ‘reviewing the legal position’. Other Northern Ireland parties deplored the move, and Dublin and the EU emphasised the responsibility of the British government.
London, and all the other main parties in the Assembly, also deplored the FM’s resignation, as did representatives of business, the health service and other interests.
It was perhaps inevitable that given the pressures the DUP was under from harder line unionism it would, absent a great victory in Brussels, and quite possibly against the better judgement of its leadership, feel the need to collapse the institutions over the Protocol – rather than go into an election with its threats to do so unfulfilled. It may still hope for an outcome of the negotiations that it can claim as a reward for its robust stance.
The new legislation means that we face a period of further wrangling after the election, of up to 24 weeks. The grave economic and social challenges that Northern Ireland faces are unlikely to get much of a look in; little thought is likely to be given to developing any vision for the future of Northern Ireland.
It is not clear from the polling that the DUP will be the largest party, even in unionism. And it is quite likely that Sinn Féin will be, and so be entitled to the office of First Minister, leaving the largest unionist party the prospect of filling the deputy First Minister slot. The offices are precisely equal in power, which is exercised jointly, but psychologically this will be a difficulty for unionists. There may be deals that will soften the blow, and there may be progress on the Protocol favourable to unionist interests, but how far any of this will go is unclear. Will the pressures on (and indeed within) the DUP that have driven it to its current line allow it on that basis to participate in devolved government?
It is very questionable that bringing down power-sharing strengthens the unionist hand: London is unlikely to be impressed; protagonists of Irish unity will find confirmation that Northern Ireland is a ‘failed entity’. The leader of the UUP, Doug Beattie, predicted that as in the past, unionism would lose out from the latest move, and eventually come back to the table ‘with its tail between its legs’.
London must look to its own role. Westminster government has over the last two years appeared to many to have been willing to see division develop over the Protocol for its own reasons. It has seemed to move far from the traditional role of successive British governments of working to foster constructive politics in Northern Ireland, in close partnership with Dublin. If it does not change its approach markedly, it is hard to have any great confidence that power-sharing government can be restored – and once gone, given the present conditions of polarisation, it will be much harder to get back than it was in 2020. The foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are at serious risk of crumbling.
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 was a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, but the views expressed in this post are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group as a whole.