Alan Whysall, author of the Constitution Unit’s recent paper on The [Belfast/Good Friday] Agreement at 25, looks at immediate political prospects in Northern Ireland. The next few months may decide whether the Agreement has a future and London, he suggests, must show sustained commitment and leadership. Getting the institutions back is the starting point for reviving the Agreement, but there is much more to do.
For over a year, the DUP, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, has prevented the Assembly and Executive from functioning, in its dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework. Hardliners urge it on, though other unionists oppose the veto on government.
The crux of the unionist objections varies within and between parties. Some emphasise the Irish sea border, the inconveniences of which may be significantly alleviated by the Framework. Others focus on constitutional fundamentals, as they see them: the continuing role of EU law and the European Court of Justice (because Northern Ireland remains within the European Single Market for goods) and the alleged impact of the Protocol on its place in the Union. Some speak of Northern Ireland as an EU ‘colony’; some now openly reject the Agreement. They see refusing to enter government as ‘leverage’ with London (implying the slightly odd characterisation of their participation in self-government as a favour to others).
Meanwhile civil servants run the administration, but without legal authority to take new policy initiatives – and doubtful legitimacy for making contentious decisions. That has just come to the fore with a difficult budget, set from London in the absence of an Executive, embodying real term cuts of 6.4%. Civil servants may be expected to decide where the impact should fall, and are objecting publicly.
Where will the negotiation lead?
Political movement is unlikely before the 18 May local government elections. The DUP may want to negotiate on the Windsor Framework; measures safeguarding the Union; and other sweeteners (including, as always, money). But there are serious limits to what is possible. The present government in London is unlikely to reopen the Framework – there may be flexibilities around implementation, but anything more risks reviving conflict with Brussels. The government has promised ‘legal reassurances’ about Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, but how much more it can offer is doubtful (it is already expressly protected: broadening the guarantee to prevent changes unionists object to would be strongly resisted).Continue reading