Northern Ireland after the election

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The Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March is likely to be followed by a difficult political negotiation. Alan Whysall argues that it must not be mere political sticking plaster. There is no real alternative to the basic architecture of the institutions, but there are fundamental issues to be dealt with about the way they operate. And that is too important to be left to politicians alone: people in Northern Ireland outside politics need to get involved in setting the agenda.

As my previous blog post, published last week, outlined, we are likely to be in a profoundly difficult position after the election on 2 March, whatever the result. The recent departure from the Assembly through ill-health of Martin McGuinness, a figure of stature and experience, will make things no easier. There will be at most three weeks to find a basis for the restoration of devolved government – failing which fresh elections would by law be called. More likely, Westminster would conclude that it had to reimpose direct rule: but that would make reaching a settlement much more difficult and protracted. It is probably the last thing that any of the main parties want, but we may be back to games of chicken; and there is a risk of politics running out of control.

There is likely to be an intensive political negotiation whatever happens. Preferably, it would if necessary take place in parallel with a resumed devolved government, with the parties agreeing to stay until perhaps September – however imperfect from the good government point of view. Here are some thoughts about how it should be approached.

First, flawed though its operation has been, the present set of institutions is the best we can hope for in current circumstances – subject to some adjustments to the way it functions.  So long as the electorate continue to vote largely for parties representing one part of the Northern Ireland community or other, if there is not a form of government that engages the energies of both then constructive politics will be impossible. Nationalists are likely to see attempts to replace mandatory coalition with something else, whatever the safeguards offered, as an unacceptable attempt to undermine their influence.

But the system needs to operate in a new political climate if it is to function stably and effectively: for that it needs new attitudes, new ideas, new people. This is not to dismiss the Northern Ireland political class wholesale: they operate in the environment they are given.

But the present politics yield no vision, hence inspire no-one. Politics in Northern Ireland is probably even more of a bubble activity than elsewhere in the western world. In particular it turns young people off. It discourages reflection about the most important long term problems, fixating on the traditional issues. There is an obsession with scandal, because the system is widely seen as corrupt – probably much more than it in fact is. And people deplore the lack of respect among politicians – witness the widespread welcome when Ian Paisley Jr, unlike others in his party, spoke warmly and decently of the ailing Martin McGuinness.

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Northern Ireland: where now?

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has called a fresh Assembly election for March 2, following the spectacular and unexpected collapse of the devolved Executive. The campaign seems likely to be divisive. Reviving devolved partnership government at the end, in a sustainable form, will be difficult, argues Alan Whysall, but is still the only way forward.

The deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness resigned last Monday, following the refusal of the First Minister, Arlene Foster, to step down pending investigation of her role several years ago, when Minister for Enterprise, in establishing the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The scheme (described in detail in Foster’s statement to the Assembly) was based on one in Great Britain with similar objectives, of encouraging burning of renewable fuels over traditional ones. But unlike that scheme, it provided for a subsidy that turned out to be greater than the market price of the fuel – so the more you burned, the more you earned – and did not taper with increasing use, nor reduce in rate if overall demand increased. The Northern Ireland system is left committed to making payments above its budget that may amount to £500 million over 20 years.

Everyone acknowledges that there have been, as the Audit Office concluded, ‘serious systemic failings’. But this is the latest of a string of affairs, involving DUP ministers as well as others, where rumours abound, though with no real evidence so far, of more serious malpractice. Foster’s DUP successor as Enterprise Minister fanned the flames in a TV interview: following prayers for divine support in telling the truth, offered on camera and with the assistance of a clergyman, he alleged that when the extent of the problems with the scheme emerged advisers to Foster, then Finance Minister, and to Peter Robinson, then First Minister, had sought to delay its closure.

Parts of the media have pursued this story energetically. The parties that had chosen to go into opposition in this Assembly following the May 2016 elections called loudly for Foster’s ejection from office, at least pending an enquiry. Sinn Féin, elected with the DUP on the Fresh Start agenda and pursuing a tacit non-aggression pact, were at first more measured. But as the clamour grew and the story developed, amid suggestions that they were DUP patsies, they asked that she should step aside pending inquiry. She declined.

The DFM’s resignation letter, however, lays out many other grievances bottled up in private by Sinn Féin over the preceding months. They have made clear that resumed devolved government depends on resolving them.

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Brexit and Northern Ireland: key issues and possible consequences

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In this post Alan Whysall sets out the key issues for Northern Ireland in the upcoming Brexit negotiations and examines the likely consequences. He suggests that, if things do not go well, there is a risk of the unwinding of political and social progress. It is urgent that the options for Northern Ireland are quickly and honestly analysed, and that the Executive takes coherent positions on them. But there has been little such analysis in Northern Ireland so far: Brexit reinforces the need for policy development capacity outside government.

On 23 June, Northern Ireland’s voters preferred by 55.8 per cent to 44.2 per cent to remain in the European Union.

Northern Ireland is in many ways in the front line of Brexit: the part of the UK with a land border with an EU state, where a large proportion of the population identifies itself with another EU state, considering itself Irish more than British. But the debate started very late, despite the efforts of an NGO established to develop it. Little analysis of the questions involved has emerged – the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons produced a useful report but nothing comparable was undertaken locally. Once again, the Northern Ireland system – Executive, Assembly, media, civic society – has found it hard to move beyond the traditional issues of Northern Ireland politics.

Key issues for Northern Ireland in a negotiation

Northern Ireland will need to have analysed the impact of various outcomes from a negotiation, and decided which to press for, and what special treatment it would be looking for, so far as those outcomes leave flexibility.

The most obvious issues are around the border: does it become ‘hard’? So, if the UK is not in the Single Market, can customs duties be avoided – is it feasible that Northern Ireland should have any sort of special status? If not, are customs controls on the border inevitable?

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The future of Northern Ireland politics

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Alan Whysall gave a lecture at Ulster University in February on the future of Northern Ireland politics. The full text of the lecture is available here in revised and expanded form. In this post he discusses the key points it raises, which are a development of themes raised in blogs on this site. The views set out are personal ones, but the Constitution Unit will be doing further work in the coming months on how the institutions in Northern Ireland might function better.

In a lecture at Ulster University in February I argued, in summary, that the underlying politics of Northern Ireland is such that the institutions remain in some danger – and in the longer term the sands are shifting in unexpected ways. Meanwhile grave problems that face Northern Ireland are not being addressed as effectively as they might be. For the institutions to have the best prospects of surviving and delivering, leadership is needed from the wider Northern Ireland community. There is a need to develop a clear vision for what can realistically be achieved by the Executive, capable of inspiring people; new capacity to develop policy in support of it; and a more positive political climate to ensure it is done. If that leadership cannot be found, it is hard to be confident of Northern Ireland achieving its full potential: the British, Irish and US governments have an important role, but lack the time and focus to resolve the fundamentals.

More fully, I argued that the Fresh Start package of last November is welcome because it keeps devolution on the road. Politicians had a strong self-interest in saving the system, but matters might have run out of control. Few others in Northern Ireland love the institutions.

Some there looked forward to the prospect of resumed direct rule. But in reality that would be very troubled. Ending the arrangements for working across communal boundaries, however imperfect, would have let loose serious division and recrimination, and the institutions would have been hard to bring back, possibly for many years.

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Ireland’s election leads to uncertainty over identity of next government

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Last month’s Irish election resulted in a hung Dáil and uncertainty about the nature and identity of the next government. Alan Whysall discusses the result and its possible implications on both sides of the border.

A general election by single transferable vote to the lower house of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, was held on 26 February. The government suffered badly. The 32nd Dáil is hung, and there may not be a successor government for some weeks.

The following table summarises seats won, and first preference votes cast:

Party Seats Vote share (first preferences)
Fine Gael 50 25.5%
Fianna Fáil 44 24.4%
Sinn Féin 23 13.9%
Labour 7 6.6%
Independent/Other 34 29.7%

The Dáil has 158 seats, so 80 are required for an overall majority. There is more detail on the election here.

The result was a profound upset for the governing Fine Gael/Labour coalition. It had come to power in 2011 when the government led by Fianna Fáil was blamed for the economic crash – which was made all the starker because it followed the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of prosperity. This time Fine Gael’s share of the vote slumped, well beyond its expectations and most poll predictions, and that of Labour, as with junior coalition partners elsewhere, suffered even more. Fine Gael – though inspired, some say, by the UK Conservative effort last year – was generally held to have had a disastrous campaign. Its slogan of ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ was thought to have antagonised many who did not see themselves having enjoyed any fruits of recovery, although Ireland is now one of the Eurozone’s best performing economies.

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Northern Ireland’s ‘Fresh Start’ agreement will bring short term stability but does not itself resolve the underlying problems

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Alan Whysall discusses developments last week in Northern Ireland, arguing that the ‘Fresh Start’ agreement will bring stability in the short term but does not itself resolve the underlying problems. This blog follows up earlier posts outlining Northern Ireland’s current political difficulties here, and possible ways forward here and here.

After some months of stand off, and ten weeks of negotiations involving the main parties and the British and Irish governments, things moved quickly last week. A political deal on most of the problematic issues in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) of last December, and more recent concerns about paramilitarism, was announced by the First Minister and deputy First Minister on Wednesday. The Assembly quickly moved on Thursday to give effect to it. Then the First Minister, Peter Robinson, announced his departure from that office and the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party, probably around the turn of the year.

Immediate threats to stability at Stormont now appear to be averted, at least until after the Assembly elections next May. If, as appears likely, the DUP and Sinn Féin are again working closely together, a positive momentum in politics (as in 2010-12) may bring advances. But serious potential challenges lie ahead. And the ‘Fresh Start’ the deal claims to be will need a new approach to create the right political conditions.

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Is Einstein right about Northern Ireland?

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Last month Robin Wilson wrote a blog attributing Stormont’s continued instability to what he sees as Westminster’s inflexible approach to Northern Ireland’s constitutional arrangements. In this post Alan Whysall argues that there is limited hope that institutional reform will offer a way forward in present circumstances. Rather, the political climate in Northern Ireland needs to be changed, and the effort must come primarily from people there. 

Robin Wilson’s recent blog channeled the Einstein view of Northern Ireland’s current political difficulties: summed up in the proposition that the situation never changes, but that the remedy offered by London remains stubbornly the same.

A lot of the analysis is hard to dispute. There are serious underlying failings in the present system.

The immediate causes of disruption, to do with welfare and paramilitary activity, are being addressed in talks between the governments and the parties. It seems increasingly likely, with the DUP and Sinn Féin changing their rhetoric significantly, that a way will be found to resume ostensibly normal working – assuming that there is reassurance in the report on paramilitarism due imminently.

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