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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Northern Ireland 1.01: A revision class for those with a sense of déjà vu

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Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement seems fragile again. In this post, Alan Whysall explains the constitutional framework and political background to the latest crisis. It provides factual background for our next two blogs on Northern Ireland, to be posted in the next two weeks.

Northern Ireland politics are largely split between Unionists-a majority, though smaller than previously, represented by the Democratic Unionist Party DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); and nationalists, represented by Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). These parties typically draw more than 80% of the vote, and are in the Northern Ireland Executive, along with the Alliance Party, which has support from both communities.

The devolution arrangements largely reflect the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement of 1998, given effect by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. But the Agreement is more than a devolution settlement. It provides for Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, in a way now very widely accepted, so that whether Northern Ireland is part of the UK or a United Ireland is a matter decided by a majority of people there voting in a poll. Opinion poll evidence suggests there is limited enthusiasm for change – even among Catholics, who are generally understood to be nationalist. The Agreement also make provision for structures for cooperation within the island of Ireland, and more widely, including the other devolved governments; a defined Irish role in Northern Ireland affairs; and rights protection.

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