Northern Ireland talks: is a deal in prospect?

Northern Ireland remains without a government. Dialogue has resumed, but the climate is conflictual, and exacerbated by Brexit. The foundations of the Good Friday Agreement may now be seriously shaken. There is some talk of a deal being in prospect, but room for doubt that anything lasting can be achieved. Alan Whysall provides an update and suggests that handling of Northern Ireland once again needs the priority, care, understanding and courage it received from previous governments.

My previous blog set the scene: two polarising elections – to the Northern Ireland Assembly and then Westminster – have failed so far to restore devolved government, following its collapse at the beginning of the year; rather, they reinforced the position of the two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, at the expense of moderates. The nationalist vote, which had been shrinking, has bounced back, which along with the prospect of Brexit has renewed the focus of Irish nationalism on unity. Since Sinn Féin do not take their seats in the Commons and the SDLP no longer has any seats, it is now without any nationalist voice.

Where are we now?

At Westminster, following the election, the Conservative party and DUP reached a confidence and supply agreement. The DUP will support the government throughout this parliament on votes on confidence and finance, as well as Brexit and national security. However, the DUP are to ‘have no involvement in the UK government’s role in political talks in Northern Ireland’. The government will provide extra funding for Northern Ireland totalling about £1 billion over the coming years. It seems to be linking the extra spending to resumed devolution, the DUP denying such a linkage. The deal has been much criticised, Moody’s citing it among reasons for downgrading the UK’s debt rating. Gina Miller and others are mounting a legal challenge, with unclear prospects of success.

Meanwhile the civil service in Northern Ireland, with no ministers to give it direction, aims to ensure ’business as usual‘, but is unable to launch significant new programmes, projects or policies. No budget has been set for this year. The Secretary of State has laid down ‘indicative’ allocations, presumably by way of giving political cover, since he does not have legal authority of any kind over the devolved domain.

According to the Secretary of State, if the situation ‘is not resolved within a relatively short number of weeks will require greater political decision-making from Westminster… to begin with legislation [for] a Budget”.

In that context, he would consider whether Assembly members should still be paid, since they do not meet – one of the few levers the government really has. The DUP leader Arlene Foster, though, found this offensive. Is this a veto?

The Secretary of State spoke of a ‘glidepath’ to greater UK government intervention, implying perhaps, though he did not use the term, a reversion to direct rule, the classic regime of which was considered in an earlier blog.

Strains are emerging between the British and Irish governments over this: after the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said there could be no British-only direct rule, the British government sharply riposted that there would be no joint authority, which Coveney had not suggested. Some saw the hand of the DUP here. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the minister is right – Dublin would have substantial rights to make representations about British government actions during direct rule, though without prejudice to sovereignty.

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Following the general election, where now for Northern Ireland?

The general election result has done little to halt the steady unravelling of the political situation in Northern Ireland, and may accelerate it. In this post Alan Whysall discusses the implications of the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP, expected to be agreed in the coming days, and what might happen next.  

As Theresa May reaches out to Northern Ireland for support, the political situation there has been steadily unravelling. A pact with the DUP – which has been on the point of emerging for several days, and may appear today, or may not – is unlikely to stop the unravelling. It could accelerate it – not necessarily, but unless there are changes in outlook in Northern Ireland politics, not least from the British government, we risk losing many of the gains that have followed from the Good Friday Agreement.

The unravelling started a while ago…

Earlier blogs have outlined the increasing disarray in Northern Ireland politics since the turn of the year, here, here and here. The following is a brief summary for those who have not kept up.

Sinn Féin, which along with the DUP had constituted the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, pulled the plug on it in January. Ostensibly this was because of financial scandal involving the First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, in an earlier ministerial life. But the underlying causes had more to do with the way that the DUP treated nationalism, and Brexit.

An election to the Northern Ireland Assembly followed in March. It was highly polarising. Although there have been existential crises in the life of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, elections have generally been conducted in a spirit of renewed commitment to work together. And voters increasingly came to like and expect that language – even if there was increasing disillusion at the performance of the devolved institutions.

There was little talk of working together in this Assembly election, however. The reversion in recent months to rhetoric redolent of the days before the Agreement has been marked. Arlene Foster’s spirited attacks on Sinn Féin in fact contributed to a strengthening of its vote – the overall nationalist vote had been flagging in recent elections, but now dramatically bounced back. There was also some strengthening of the middle ground, but the more moderate Unionist and nationalist parties the UUP and SDLP did less well.

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Following Monday’s deadline, the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland remains uncertain

The legal deadline for forming a new Northern Ireland Executive has passed without agreement between the parties. This could have important political and legal consequences, including the return of ‘direct rule’. For the time being, however, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has decided to give the negotiations more time. In this addendum to his earlier blog post, published on Monday before the UK government’s statement, Alan Whysall discusses what might happen over the coming weeks.

Monday’s deadline for forming a new Executive in Northern Ireland passed without an agreement. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke afterwards, and again in parliament on Tuesday. As predicted, he decided to give the negotiation process more time, until after the Easter recess (the Commons returns on 18 April). He will then ‘as a minimum’ bring forward a Westminster bill to regularise finances (see below). The bill would also allow an Executive to be formed, if political agreement emerges. But otherwise, the government would have to ‘consider all options’. Since he made it clear further elections were unappealing, this appears to mean direct rule, though he deplored the prospect.

In most such political deadlocks worldwide, there is at least a caretaker government of some sort: but not in Northern Ireland. No–one is at present empowered to give direction to the Northern Ireland civil service. The Head of the Service set out the nature of that uncomfortable position in a letter to staff. There would be business as usual, but no new initiatives, whose legal legitimacy must be doubtful. Such an arrangement clearly cannot go on for long, and unexpected events could cause real difficulty.

And there will be great budgetary prudence. In the absence of a budget voted by the Assembly, the Finance Permanent Secretary has powers to release certain limited funds, but no more than 95 per cent in cash terms of last year’s budget; moreover, there is no authority at present to raise the principal local tax, the rates (a property tax analogous to Council Tax).

Where do the talks now go? The process to date, and the British government’s role in it, has been criticised for incoherence and lack of inclusivity; for the absence of the Prime Minister; and for lack of full partnership between the two governments. And various participants (not just nationalist) have suggested the British government cannot be an impartial chair, especially in the light of Brexit. Continue reading

Following the break down of talks in Northern Ireland, what now?

Northern Ireland’s political parties have failed to reach an agreement that would allow a new power-sharing Executive to be formed by today’s deadline. This will have important legal and political consequences, possibly including the re-introduction of ‘direct rule’ from Westminster. These issues are looked at here by Alan Whysall.

Political negotiations have been going on since the election of 2 March, which was brought about by the decision in January of Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin (who has since died) to resign as deputy First Minister. Yesterday, however, Sinn Féin said that the talks process had ‘run its course‘, and they would not be making nominations to Executive offices today. They did not say where the political process might go from here, but professed commitment to the devolved institutions returning.

Sinn Féin have significant grievances that they say must be resolved before a new Executive is formed. They have an effective veto on that happening since, as the largest nationalist party, they must nominate the deputy First Minister. Among their demands has been that the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, should not become First Minister until the report of an inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive affair that was the ostensible trigger for the election, potentially a year away. That condition would be very hard for the DUP to meet. Latterly, though, they have given precedence to their demands of the British government in relation to what they assert are ‘existing commitments’ as to ‘rights’ of various sorts.

Some may question whether Sinn Féin want to be in devolved government at all at the moment. There is a range of grievances that their base genuinely feel. But in large measure, this may be on account of Brexit. Brexit is the first development since 1998 with a significant effect on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement which was not agreed by both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It would be extremely uncomfortable for Sinn Féin to be in government, carrying out British rule in Ireland, as hard-line Republicans would put it, while Brexit was being implemented, potentially including barriers of whatever sort (and anything will be an irritant politically) being introduced at the land border within the island.

Northern Ireland views on Brexit appear to have had no impact on the approach in London. A political stand-off against the British government might gain more traction. It may also play well for Sinn Féin politically north and south of the border. But renouncing a role in government in Northern Ireland in favour of British ministers, for an uncertain but perhaps protracted period, is not attractive for them either.

At all events, by today, the main parties in the Assembly elected on 2 March ought by law to have nominated a First and deputy First Minister. They are also scheduled to fill the other ministerial posts in the Executive, and the Assembly Speakership. The Assembly was due to meet at 12 noon for the purpose, and the legal shutters are deemed to come down at 4pm. If the parties do not appoint the FM and DFM by that time their powers disappear and the Secretary of State comes under an obligation to set a date for another Assembly election. There is legal authority that he does not have to do so immediately however, and there is speculation that he might hold off for a while, seeking to reinstate negotiations. He appears likely to make a statement in the Commons tomorrow.

Like his predecessors in similar situations, the Secretary of State has been playing up the prospect of a further election as a threat. In fact that might rather appeal to both of the two big parties, who might hope to pick up seats from smaller ones. But there is no sign that an election would do anything to facilitate political agreement. The arithmetic would not change radically. The campaign would probably intensify the reversion of the political debate in Northern Ireland to the old unionist-nationalist, them and us, stand-off, and away from the era of working together which Martin McGuinness personified.

If there are no Executive appointments, and no elections, some Westminster primary legislation will be needed after today. That might be to permit the selection of an FM and DFM, if there is a late breakthrough; or give more time for negotiation if the prospects radically change. And in those contexts there might be powers to fix aspects of Executive business in the short term, since there are no ministers at present, nor any budget for the new financial year.

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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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