Post-election negotiations in Northern Ireland must set the Belfast Agreement on a firmer footing and re-establish constructive politics

Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate of the Constitution Unit, looks at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections held last week. He suggests that the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement continue to weaken, and there is no sign of the government offering any response that might strengthen them; its proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol risk making matters worse. Alan’s discussion paper on Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections was published last Friday, and is summarised in this blog, and discussed in this podcast.

The election results, though well forecast by polling, were reported in dramatic terms by media outside Northern Ireland, with coverage focusing on Sinn Féin displacing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the largest party.

They reflect the increasing polarisation of Northern Ireland politics, fuelled by unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol. So Traditional Unionist Voice, to the right of the DUP, tripled its vote. The DUP lost approaching a quarter of its vote – but probably, with its line that only it could ensure there was a unionist First Minister, scooped up some support from the Ulster Unionists, who fared poorly. In the event, the DUP won 25 seats, more than many predicted.

But the line about First Ministers was heard even more on the other side, resulting in more nationalist votes going to Sinn Féin. That made it the largest party in the Assembly with 27 seats. The nationalist SDLP lost out grievously; with eight members, it is too small to gain a ministerial position.

The other notable phenomenon in the election, though, was the rise of the centre ground, those identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist – which means now, almost exclusively, the Alliance party. Alliance more than doubled its Assembly seats to 17. It is now the third largest party, instead of fifth. The binary assumptions of the Agreement, that politics is essentially about unionist and nationalist blocs, may be increasingly unsustainable.

Psychologically, the Sinn Féin win is momentous. Under current rules, it falls to the party to nominate the First Minister, for the first time. It is another illustration, one of a number in recent years, of eroding unionist majorities.

Materially, it has less significance – for now anyway. The First Minister has precisely identical (joint) powers to the deputy First Minister, a post Sinn Féin has filled for some years. Some outside commentators saw its win as presaging an early border poll and vote for a united Ireland. It does not. There is a legal obligation to call a poll if it appears a majority would be likely to vote for Irish unity: but the vote of the combined nationalist parties (and the SDLP is less enthusiastic about an early poll) is roughly where it has been the last 10 years and more, at around 40%. The swing constituency on the question of Irish unity is now the centre ground, and ‘soft’ nationalists who have traditionally been content to go along with the Union, for fear of the disruption unification might entail.

The Protocol and political progress

The new MLAs signed into the Assembly last Friday. The DUP had already said that it would not re-enter the Executive until its demands on the Protocol were met [see chapter 6 of the paper]. But it went a step further, blocking appointment of a Speaker – while it does so, the Assembly will not be able to meet. And the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, having gained an Assembly seat, declined to take it, coopting an alternate and remaining an MP at Westminster, though indicating he would come back if his party got its way on the Protocol.

The government urged the DUP to take its place in the Executive; but at the same time ramped up the fight with Brussels over the Protocol. Media briefing last week revealed that the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, had drawn up draft legislation that would unilaterally abrogate parts of the Protocol.

There were strong reactions. The Irish government was exasperated, questioning how far the British government wanted partnership over Northern Ireland affairs. The US Biden administration warned against, as did members of Congress, who are sending a delegation to London. So also did a number of Conservative backbenchers. But then on Sunday further briefings emerged that Number 10 was upset with the Foreign Secretary: the Prime Minister did not want a trade war with the EU.

He visited Northern Ireland on Monday, placing an article in the Belfast Telegraph to set out his stall. He acknowledged that the Protocol was agreed ‘in good faith’ (thus avoiding the suggestion that the EU had done something different to expectations, for which the case is weak). It would be wrong to propose scrapping the Protocol, rather change should be sought.

But, he went on, the ‘delicate balance created in 1998 has been upset’. One part of the Northern Ireland community felt its aspirations and identity were threatened by the Protocol. So the government’s commitments to protect the Agreement came into sharper focus. He hoped the EU’s position would change, but if not, it would be necessary to act.

The Foreign Secretary made a statement on Tuesday afternoon, saying she would introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes to the Protocol, while still delivering on its objectives. She added that proceeding with the Bill would be consistent with international obligations – briefing earlier had suggested that the Attorney General had confirmed such legislation would be lawful given the EU’s unreasonableness, but only after much ‘opinion shopping’ to find a lawyer willing to say so. The sum total of what was announced would mark a major departure from the Protocol as negotiated.

The EU reacted promptly, insisting on respect for legally binding commitments, indicating a readiness to ‘respond with all measures at its disposal’, and hinting that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement was in danger.

DUP figures have appeared sceptical, as did others, as to whether the promised legislation would appear, make its way through parliament, and be invoked; perhaps sharing a widespread suspicion that the Prime Minister’s and indeed Truss’ eagerness were more to do with Conservative party leadership prospects than concerns about Northern Ireland. After meeting the PM, the DUP suggested it needed to see legislation enacted, not merely outlined or published, before changing its stance.

Immediate prospects

There are six months to form a new Executive: during that time, old ministers continue in post as caretakers, but are unable to take any new or controversial steps [chapter 2 of the paper]. If no Executive is formed, the law requires further elections around Christmas.

The DUP is already talking about being ready for another election. It might again attempt to persuade unionist voters to coalesce around it, and return the first ministership to unionism. But whether it really relishes the prospect may be doubted: the vote magnet of keeping the First Minister position for unionism that has served it well in the past may have lost its magic. The DUP came very close this time to losing a significant further number of seats; the fact of having blocked restoration of government might alienate some voters. So there may be a particular eagerness after the summer to find a way back into government. But if the leadership moves too readily, it risks not only denunciation from hardline unionism, but splits within the party.

As the paper argues, there is much that ought to be discussed in the six-month negotiating period to set the Agreement on a firmer footing and re-establish constructive politics. Even at its best, devolved government has handled economic and social policy poorly; many of the economic fundamentals are poor (despite the passage in the Prime Minister’s article suggesting economic prospects were rosy) and some public services are crumbling. Ways need to be found of doing good government [chapter 8]; and of addressing social division and other crumbling underpinnings of the Agreement [chapter 7]. And there are increasingly persuasive arguments that structures need to change to recognise there are more than two blocs in Northern Ireland politics these days [chapter 9].

Without serious attention to these issues, any agreement to permit resumed devolution, even if Protocol issues are resolved [chapter 6], risks being a sticking plaster of the sort we have seen in recent years, of limited durability. There is no sign at present of the government addressing these issues, still less working on resumption of devolution with the Irish government. For the moment, political progress depends on negotiations over the Protocol.

But will the government’s plans, whatever their wider desirability, not at least lead to devolved government being restored? It is not clear they will. The proposed legislation, even if the government persists with it, may take a long time to enact, potentially with rejection in the House of Lords if it directly violates international obligations. But the DUP will want to wait: it has been bitten before by assurances from Johnson, who told its party conference in 2018 that he would not contemplate a border in the Irish Sea.

The approach in the statement that the DUP boycott of the Executive requires action is in fact an invitation to them to maintain it. Northern Ireland political progress may therefore be hung up on contests for supremacy within the British Conservative party, and among Northern Ireland unionist parties. It may be difficult for any of those involved to shift position, whatever the damage being done in Northern Ireland.

Much though they deplore the government’s approach, the anti-Brexit Northern Ireland parties would probably not refuse to enter an Executive simply on account of the proposed legislation. But if the consequence appeared to be Northern Ireland losing its advantages under the Protocol, or pressure developing within Europe for an order within Ireland or around it, that might be much more disruptive politically.

The lack of trust in London, and the perception of its partiality to the DUP, meanwhile, further reduce its ability to act as honest broker or work in partnership with Dublin.

And the government approach is unlikely to make negotiations with the EU easier. The line that the EU is preventing devolved government from resuming in Northern Ireland will carry little conviction anywhere outside the UK. It will be pointed out that the government itself did much to bring about the present Northern Ireland standoff; also that it could itself show flexibility – for example by agreement with the EU on animal and plant health, even if temporary, which would obviate many Irish Sea checks.

Where are we going?

As the paper suggests, the self-interest of the current positions both of unionism and the British government are questionable.

Unionism risks [chapter 6] offending others in Northern Ireland who will eventually be the deciders in Irish unity vote: the middle ground and soft nationalism. Additionally, though, they may alienate opinion in Great Britain: if action taken in violation of obligations results in EU retaliation that impacts people in the rest of the UK, there may be little sympathy for Northern Ireland. Polling suggests that feelings of affinity there are already limited, not least among Brexit voters.

And there are great risks for London [chapter 4] – albeit mainly in the medium term, which it may not be thinking about. The risk of greater instability in Northern Ireland, and the risk to the UK’s reputation across the world, ought to preoccupy it. It is pursuing approaches utterly at odds with those of governments of both parties in recent decades, and which would have appeared to them highly irresponsible. London is massively mistrusted and unpopular in Northern Ireland, according to polling. The old belief that it was a safe pair of hands in case things went wrong in Belfast is much shaken.

So while the Prime Minister again stressed its commitment to the Union, over time, Brexit, the Protocol and their consequences may bring us nearer to unity. Many questions need to be resolved about what unity would look like, and there is great apprehension about the practical consequences of change. But what happens in the coming weeks may nudge opinion further towards it.

To be clear, though, unity is not on the cards for now – so what ought to be done? If London is not fulfilling its responsibilities, and therefore the London-Dublin axis which has generally driven political progress in Northern Ireland is powerless, can others help take the strain? The paper suggests [chapter 5] that there is an opportunity, indeed a need, for civic society in Northern Ireland to offer leadership.

And the paper suggests that that the objective should be not merely to resolve present disputes, but to seek to bring about a renewal of the 1998 Agreement, to set it on stronger foundations in its 25th anniversary year in 2023. In that context, a resolution of difficulties around the Protocol may also be more readily possible.

All this is a great deal more easily said than done, but it does appear that some impetus from outside the sterile political world may be necessary.

Alan’s discussion paper on Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections was published last Friday, summarised in this blog, and discussed in this podcast.

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.