Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

The appointment by Liz Truss, upheld by Rishi Sunak, of former leading figures in the European Research Group (ERG) as Secretary of State and Minister of State (Steve Baker) did not raise expectations of a deal. But Baker’s apology for failing to understand the Irish government’s concerns during Brexit negotiations changed the atmosphere. Negotiations between London and Brussels, suspended during the recent Conservative leadership contests, have resumed; relations with Dublin seem much warmer.

It is not clear how far there has been rapprochement on the substance, however. Baker himself emphasised that Northern Ireland must not be ‘tied’ to EU law, and indeed warned against betrayal by UK officials. During the latest leadership contest he starkly threatened that unless Sunak, whose candidacy he supported, carried through the current Northern Ireland Protocol policy, Eurosceptics would ‘implode the government’. An article by him and a colleague perhaps hinted, however, at compromise behind the rhetoric.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill purports to untie the UK from EU law and unilaterally rewrite the Protocol. On second reading in the House of Lords it attracted widespread criticism, summed up by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee:

as stark a transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive as we have seen throughout the Brexit process… unprecedented in its cavalier treatment of Parliament, the EU and the Government’s international obligations.

Its Lords passage may be difficult.

The US, and particularly President Joe Biden, remain concerned about the government’s plans for the Protocol.

Meanwhile debate over Northern Ireland’s longer-term future has intensified. There has been a succession of public events supporting Irish unity, there is an Irish parliamentary inquiry on the subject, and books are being written. Many difficult practical issues, set out in the final report of the Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland are yet to attract serious discussion, however.

Will the election delay deliver agreement?

At the time of writing, there seems increasing optimism about a Brussels/London deal, but political progress in Northern Ireland may remain difficult.

With unionist expectations talked up over the last year from London [Report, chapter 6], it is hard for the DUP to be flexible, with the risk of it splitting. Ultra-hardliners argue against any weakness, loyalist paramilitaries make menacing noises, and unionists of all stripes are mistrustful of London (but such mistrust is universal).

Movement before council elections next May might be especially difficult. Assembly elections would, at best, probably not help. Polling suggests no fundamental change in the Assembly lineup, but positions are liable to harden.

The UK government has justified its actions as defending the supremacy of the Agreement and regaining unionist consent. But simply granting the DUP’s demands does not ensure devolved government.

Alleviation of controls in the Irish Sea would be welcome to all parties. But a majority in the Assembly favours the Protocol as a necessary mitigation of conditions brought about by Brexit. There have been hints from Brussels that the Protocol Bill, if enacted, might make it impossible for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU Single Market for goods. Breaking with EU law as advocated by the ERG (not widely argued for in Northern Ireland) clearly creates fundamental problems. The consequences might be politically incendiary, raising a threat to much economic activity in Northern Ireland, and questions of borders within the island, or around it. Nationalist participation in devolution in that context is clearly doubtful.

There have also been suggestions, if the bill is enacted, of significant sanctions against the UK, perhaps suspension of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement: effectively a trade war with the EU, with damaging implications for the economy, and for UK international standing, including perhaps in financial markets.

Getting an agreement that is acceptable in both Brussels and Belfast may require considerable political engineering. It is not clear last week’s extension gives enough time, nor that there is the sufficient commitment in London.

A new approach

But political change on this scale has been accomplished before. The Agreement itself came about from an unpromising starting point. Times may be propitious: a new government, a new monarch – Queen Elizabeth’s contribution to resolving enmities was praised across nationalist Ireland after her death in September – and the 25th anniversary of the Agreement next year will create a new context.

An initiative to relaunch and strengthen the Agreement in its quarter-centenary year, addressing but going well beyond the Protocol dispute, offers hope of breaking the deadlock [Report, chapter 5]. But this would require a political effort closer to the one that led to the Agreement, and something of the political priority.

  • There would have been no Agreement without the British and Irish governments working in close cooperation (Tony Blair’s government from 1997, but equally John Major’s earlier). The present relationship, even if recently improved, is far less deep. And trust with the parties needs to be built.
  • Reaching the Agreement required a willingness to give the issue political priority in London. This means prime ministerial time; and a willingness to change other policies that might inhibit progress.
  • Process is important, as well as substance: giving the Northern Ireland parties greater opportunities to be heard has an important role to play in facilitating compromise.
  • Bipartisanship at Westminster was, and might again be, important in enabling governments to take risks for peace.
  • Civil society made an important contribution, and it could be critical now, but would need encouragement from the British and Irish governments.
  • International goodwill was a strong element in the success of the Agreement. The US, which regards the Agreement as a triumph of American foreign policy, made great efforts. And the EU, though little involved directly in negotiating the Agreement, has wanted to be seen as its friend – besides financial contributions. For example, over a number of years the Barroso Task Force pursued ways in which the EU could best support Northern Ireland.

Recreating these conditions could once again revive the hope in Northern Ireland that led many in 1998 to put aside profound political hesitations. It could in short make necessary compromise easier. And it could build the foundations of a stabler settlement.

The elements of renewal

What might this approach involve? Compromise on the Protocol will be an essential element, but it needs to be wider and more ambitious to secure stable institutions and constructive politics.

The Agreement has in many ways disappointed expectations in the recent years of polarisation. Notably in the field of good government: Executives have had a poor record of delivery against the grave economic, social and public service challenges that face Northern Ireland [Report, chapter 8].

But also as regards community relations – reconciliation has broken down – and in other fields [Report, chapter 7].

The last agreement on resuming devolved government, 2020’s New Decade, New Approach, did address a number of these issues. But progress on them has been extremely limited. A new agreement must move well beyond aspiration to deliver early results.

The EU contribution is obviously critical. Its scope to compromise in substance on some demands is realistically limited. But might it in the context of renewal of the Agreement – and so long as not seen to be acting under threat of London unilaterally renouncing its obligations – be ready to adopt a new text replacing the Protocol, even though significant elements of the latter might carry across? Might it set up an initiative, in the spirit of the Barroso Task Force, to consider how it could support Northern Ireland in its unique hybrid position (outside the EU, but within the Single Market)?

The awful alternative

The Report [chapter 3] dealt with the potential problems if devolution does not resume in Northern Ireland. It would be left without effective government. Civil servants, even with reinforced powers, could hardly cope with current and impending challenges. The traditional answer of direct rule would be massively controversial: Sinn Féin has already issued warnings. The Agreement provides for a substantial Dublin role, but that too has started to be contentious.

There would be increasing demands to change the rules on the basis of which Executives are formed, so that no party can veto it. Alliance is already pressing for this. Although there are significant difficulties in bringing it about, the Irish government has also raised the possibility [Report, Chapter 9].

In the longer term, failure to restore devolution risks the Agreement being seen as a dead letter, while there is no plausible alternative arrangement to accommodate competing political pressures and community loyalties.

None of this reinforces the Union. Within Northern Ireland, support for unionist parties has been shrinking. If conflict with the EU leads to greater economic hardship in Great Britain, it may strain the already tenuous affinity there with Northern Ireland unionism [Report, chapter 6].


Failure in London to deal effectively now with Northern Ireland issues risks storing up great unhappiness later.

The signatories of the 1998 Agreement were, rightly, praised for their statesmanship. It remains an important part of the legacy of various politicians now departed from the scene. At a time when political maturity and responsibility is at a premium, bringing off an encore, despite the hard work and political strain involved, ought to seem attractive in London. Especially as the alternative may be disastrous not only within the island of Ireland, but also in Great Britain.

Northern Ireland’s Political Future was published in May and is available to download from the Unit website.

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 author of Northern Ireland’s Political Future.

2 thoughts on “Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

  1. Pingback: I·CONnect – What’s New in Public Law

  2. Pingback: Northern Eire: risks and alternatives for London | law

Comments are closed.