After Northern Ireland’s political parties missed the latest deadline for reaching an agreement to restore devolved government, the current Assembly crisis is now the longest for over a decade. In this post Brian Walker suggests a new approach that might help to break the deadlock.
Standing back, it’s easy enough to see why the latest Assembly crisis is the longest and most intractable for over a decade. Unusually in recent times and in sharp contrast to the heady days of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), this breakdown is set against a background of momentous upheaval which, typically, the local politicians have rushed to exploit for their own causes. For the DUP, Brexit revives the prospect of a physical border which in whatever final form confirms the fact of the Union. For Sinn Féin the prospect of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU as part of a united Ireland opens up a new route to the elusive old destination. Both parties now enjoy uncertain leverage in the two parliaments of their allegiance where minority governments uncertainly rule.
If Sinn Féin’s narrative of a people’s surge of rebellion against DUP intransigence is not entirely convincing, it cannot be denied that events outside have given fresh impetus to the struggle for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Internally, the frustrations of power sharing by which the winning parties are always denied the fruits of clear victory might otherwise have been contained, had it not been for a remarkable coincidence of the green energy fiasco and the fatal illness of Martin McGuinness. For Sinn Féin the chance of exploring whether Assembly elections could become one more useful stage in an unending series of mini-referendums to create momentum for a border poll was too good to miss. In the short run the tactic has not delivered, but the contest may become all the keener with the impending emergence of a Catholic voting majority. All election victories look like becoming marginal from now on and the prospect of a well functioning Assembly all the more uncertain. Or so it appears at the moment. As recently as May last year it all looked rather different.
The shortcomings of the UK government
Faced with the collapse of the Assembly, the British government’s attitude was curiously passive until almost the last minute, compared to the close engagement of earlier years when in a high pressure environment prime ministers presided, ears were constantly bent and many draft proposals circulated. Even after making due allowance for mediation fatigue, this looks like a fundamental error, though whether out of calculation or incompetence is unclear. It is not enough to claim – rightly – that the government have bigger things to worry about: they usually do. For under the guise of respecting devolution (interestingly also the reason given for denying Northern Irish women abortions on the NHS in England and now overthrown), a Conservative pattern of relative disengagement since 2010 has weakened the British government’s authority and exposed a loss of touch. Secretary of State James Brokenshire’s impartiality was compromised from the moment he complained about legal action against ex-soldiers in January. He appeared to care more about the Tory cause of shielding them from possible prosecution than his essential role as a minister.
As an organising principle for the talks, the split between devolved and non- devolved matters, with the former chaired by the apolitical figure of the head of the civil service, was a pointless distinction. While insisting on the sovereign power’s prerogatives, Brokenshire exercised them very little. The present government’s line on Brexit already placed them on the opposite side from nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland whose ultimate aim is to dismantle ‘the precious, precious Union’ they are pledged to defend. Might that have been a reason for letting the locals get on with it? The Secretary of State’s role as the judge of a majority in favour of a border poll is therefore unlikely to survive unchallenged.