Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections

The Constitution Unit has today published a new discussion paper entitled Northern Ireland’s political future: Challenges after the Assembly elections. Here the author, Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, introduces it. A further paper on longer-term prospects for Northern Ireland will be published later this year.

Northern Ireland voted for a new Assembly yesterday; the results will emerge over the coming hours and days. Thereafter, talks will begin on the formation of a new Executive. What happens in these negotiations matters profoundly for the future of Northern Ireland. It should also be of great concern to ministers in London. The future of the power-sharing arrangements that have brought stability to Northern Ireland for almost a quarter of a century may be at stake.

In current difficulties, there is also the potential to bring about change for the better. The paper explores what renewal of the Agreement might involve.

The present situation

Northern Ireland’s governing arrangements follow the principles set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998. Core to the Agreement is the principle of power-sharing. The Executive is headed by a First Minister and a deputy First Minister, who must come from different political traditions, and who exercise equal powers conjointly. All but the smallest parties in the Assembly – which is elected by proportional representation – are entitled to hold ministerial briefs.

These arrangements are in a state of semi-collapse. The largest party in the outgoing Assembly, the Democratic Unionists, withdrew its First Minister in February, meaning that the Executive has, since then, been unable to meet. Though other ministers remain, they are effectively caretakers. There is a period of up to six months following the election in which to find political agreement on forming a new Executive. The DUP says it will not go fully back into the Executive unless its demands are met for changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Shifts in voting patterns may mean institutional changes are called for. But there are deeper failings within the Northern Ireland polity.

Key themes

Among the key themes of the report are:

  • The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remains the only basis for politics in Northern Ireland. There is no other plausible framework capable of widespread support, and no early likelihood of the majority for Irish unity required by the Agreement (though a vigorous discussion of unity will, legitimately, go on).
  • The foundations of the Agreement are now shaky, and it is in need of comprehensive renewal. This must begin in the post-election talks. The institutions need to be kept in being, because the alternatives are dire. That may require institutional change.
  • The post-election talks also need to recognise that devolved government must deliver in order to be stable. Northern Ireland has great economic and social challenges that the institutions have not got to grips with. So beset have they been with the traditional political conflict, that it has often been unclear what the Executive stands for, beyond going on from day to day. Devolved government will be more stable the more it makes itself indispensable.
  • The talks need to recognise that the underpinnings of the settlement are ebbing away: social division continues; progress towards reconciliation has stalled; paramilitaries cast a shadow over democratic politics.
  • Renewal may take time: the institutions must be restored speedily, but a sticking plaster solution is not enough. The paper considers the prospect of a revived Agreement in its 25th anniversary year, 2023.
  • The British and Irish governments must assume their responsibilities – traditionally they have worked closely together to float new ideas, put together packages, and broker compromises. But now they are seriously at odds over the Protocol issue.
  • And London’s approach has changed: it is now markedly different from that of previous governments of both parties, which recognised the UK self-interest in a stable and prosperous Northern Ireland. London is, according to polling, almost universally mistrusted in Northern Ireland. It is widely suspected of playing political games with Northern Ireland issues, including Brexit, for Westminster political purposes.
  • We need new ideas, to found a better informed and more realistic debate, focused on real-world issues, and new sources of leadership to help translate them into reality.
  • At a time when the players in the traditional political machine may be unable to lead it towards compromise, there is a role, perhaps a necessity, for people outside politics to contribute more fully.

The Northern Ireland Protocol

One issue that the paper unpicks is the Protocol to the EU Withdrawal Agreement. The election has been enlivened by persistent briefing from London on it. A chapter of the report sets out the background. Briefly, the Protocol keeps Northern Ireland to a significant degree within the EU Single Market for goods. This has led to increased controls on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (there already were a number, concerned with plant and animal health).

The UK government has been fighting Brussels over this, with an increasing list of demands – it effectively seeks to supplant the Protocol it negotiated. This has helped drag unionism to a more conflictual position. Briefing early in the campaign suggested that the government would invoke Article 16 of the Protocol, which permits unilateral temporary suspensions of parts of it in certain circumstances. Later briefing envisaged legislation at Westminster to permit ministers to depart more widely from the Protocol, effectively authorising breaches of international law – as was proposed several years ago in the Internal Markets Bill, but ultimately not proceeded with; though on the eve of the election, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, played down suggestions it would feature in the Queen’s Speech.

Would such a step endanger political progress? By itself, perhaps not – indeed it might help the DUP to come back into the institutions. But if it threatened the advantages that Northern Ireland has under the Protocol, and still more if it appeared that London was putting Brussels in a position where to safeguard the integrity of the Single Market it demanded checks within or around Ireland, the reaction might be very different.

Ultimately there is unlikely to be a resolution of the issue this way. And a stand-off of this sort is unlikely to advance the unionist cause in Northern Ireland. What is needed is flexibility from both London and Brussels, in support of a revived and more successful Northern Ireland political settlement. But that would require a substantial change of outlook in London.

This is only one of the issues that the post-election talks are likely to focus on. The paper seeks to offer background and analysis on the key issues, accessible to a range of audiences – those closely familiar with Northern Ireland politics, and those with minimal acquaintance. It offers few definitive solutions – but it seeks to point up issues that need to be discussed, including those often neglected by the traditional political outlooks in Northern Ireland.

This blog summarises some of the key themes of Alan’s discussion paper, which is available to download now. If you’re interested in Northern Ireland why not read yesterday’s post on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, in which Conor J Kelly and Etain Tannam argue for the robust use of all three strands of the Agreement to provide more constructive forms of political engagement.

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.

One thought on “Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections

  1. Pingback: Post-election negotiations in Northern Ireland must set the Belfast Agreement on a firmer footing and re-establish constructive politics | The Constitution Unit Blog

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