The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government

Northern Ireland has been on the sidelines of the UK general election campaign, despite continuing political deadlock and the major unresolved questions resulting from Brexit. Brian Walker suggests that this reflects a general disengagement with Northern Ireland from the May government, which has taken the view that the North’s political issues are for their politicians to sort out. The Irish government can now be said to be pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively.

Northern Ireland is accustomed to being tucked away on the sidelines of a UK general election. While it is part of the constitutional nation, it is barely part of the political nation, if that is defined by electing members of the UK government. (Scotland look out!). Its electoral cycle and political interests can fundamentally clash with those of the government at Westminster.  ‘Westminster will always put its own interests first, even if ours are about life and death’, is a familiar refrain. The snap 1974 ‘Who Governs Britain’ general election did for the first fragile power sharing Executive within weeks of its formation when voters returned a full house of MPs bent on bringing it down.  Power sharing did not return for a quarter of a century.

The collapse of the 2016 Assembly

Power sharing suddenly collapsed in the New Year under the impact of the Remain referendum result locally, which put the minority coalition partner Sinn Fein on the winning side and provided them with a test run for a bigger challenge. Devolved government remains in limbo, at least until after the snap general election on 8th June. In Ireland many nationalists rate Brexit as creating the biggest crisis since partition almost a century ago. Unionists and the British government are more circumspect.

Before the EU referendum, the Assembly had seemed to be going quite well. It had survived two terms with deadlocks but avoided collapse. Nationalists seemed broadly content with the constitutional status quo. The Sinn Féin vote had dipped and the DUP were comfortably ahead by ten out of 108 seats. A Fresh Start agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments at the end of 2015 ended a deadlock over welfare cuts that had lasted a year. It even led to behind the scenes talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to settle a new style budget, as they campaigned for the Assembly election of 2016.

But the combination of a regional Remain majority, a bitter row over holding the DUP First Minster Arlene Foster responsible for a botched renewables heating scheme and the fatal illness of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness created enough combustible material for Sinn Féin to pull out of the Assembly early this year, obliging the British government to call another election. The campaign unleashed a flood of resentment at what republicans regarded as DUP majoritarian behaviour and lack of respect for Irish culture. In particular, they pointed to the failure of unionists and the British government to implement totemic equality measures like the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Language Act provided for in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

Unionists as usual saw Sinn Féin as exaggerating minor grievances to advance the republican cause but were thrown on the defensive over resisting Sinn Féin’s demand for Foster to be suspended from office. A nationalist ‘surge’ in turnout in the Assembly election that followed in March, bluntly to ‘stick it to Arlene Foster’, brought Sinn Féin within two seats of replacing her as First Minister, as the overall nationalist result overturned the unionist bloc majority for the first time. The Sinn Féin boycott won the endorsement of their voters.   Northern Ireland had turned a chapter. The Westminster election on 8 June will be another sectarian contest to gain advantage in the existential question of Irish unity, ahead of the interparty talks on the Assembly’s future which it is hoped will resume immediately afterwards.

The political scene – changing utterly?

There are profound doubts that the talks can succeed anytime soon. It remains a sticking point for Sinn Féin for Foster not to return to office until a public inquiry rules on her conduct in about a year’s time. Moreover, when the prospect of a hard border began to emerge, Sinn Féin quickly saw the political possibilities. A re-erected border would not only be a throwback to an unlamented past; it offers a potential new route to a united Ireland. Perhaps the time has come for Sinn Féin to abandon the frustrations of power sharing in a coalition of opposites, and build on the nationalist-dominated Remain majority to create momentum for a united Ireland within the EU, launched by a border poll, followed if necessary by another poll in seven years time as the Good Friday Agreement permits?

‘She doesn’t care’

The May government’s response to the Assembly breakdown is strikingly different from the close involvement of the Blair years, when peace through paramilitary disarmament and disbandment was the main objective. Without such a big issue to compel her attention, Theresa May has followed the Cameron precedent and has remained immune to appeals from local politicians and civil society to intervene personally. ‘Leave it to themselves to sort out’ is the mantra. This UK government displays less sensitivity to the Northern Ireland implications of key policy issues than the old days of the peace process. For instance, motivated it would seem by the Prime Minister’s frustrations over deporting Abu Qatada and a visceral dislike of European courts, the Conservative manifesto looks forward to a review of the Human Rights Act when the Brexit process  has concluded, even though the HRA is entrenched in the Good Friday Agreement and any change is strongly opposed by Northern nationalists and her Irish government partners.

May’s former junior minister at the Home Office, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, paid more attention to his party than his ministerial interests when he spoke out in favour of halting prosecutions of soldiers for actions long ago, giving support to a Conservative backbench campaign first sparked by what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than Northern Ireland. It therefore came as no surprise to local opinion when Sinn Féin rejected him as a mediator in interparty talks to get the Assembly going again. Brokenshire has remained on the sidelines, his role largely limited to extending time limits for the fitful and so far unproductive talks without an active chair, an agreed agenda or any obvious sense of direction. His main leverage is to threaten another Assembly election in what would be Northern Ireland voters’ twelfth trip to the polls since the Westminster election of 2010. In fact creeping direct rule restored by primary legislation is the more likely option if the talks drag on much beyond the summer Orange marching season.

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A watershed is reached in Northern Ireland

Last week’s snap election in Northern Ireland saw the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin reduced to a single seat and an Assembly without a unionist majority returned for the first time in the institution’s history. Brian Walker digests the result and considers what might happen next.

Gerry Adams was justified in declaring that the perpetual unionist majority since 1921 was ‘demolished’ in Northern Ireland’s snap election on 2 March. Only 40 seats in an Assembly of 90 members went to the two unionist-designated parties, with Sinn Féin’s 27 seats coming within a whisker of the DUP’s 28. The long-term demographic trend towards a nationalist majority in the province was at last translated into Assembly seats. Turnout, at 65 per cent, was 10 per cent up on May last year, the crucial differential turnout favouring nationalists in particular – the Sinn Féin vote was up by 57,000 compared with 23,000 for the DUP. Fairly small increases in percentage share of the vote – four per cent for nationalists, two per cent for unionists – made crucial differences accentuated by the reduction of seat numbers in the Assembly from 108 to 90. Of 16 lost in an Assembly of ten fewer seats, ten were unionists. Undoubtedly, nationalism has recovered momentum. A chance transfer of only a handful of votes could result in a Sinn Féin First Minister next time and seal the transformation.

Sinn Féin’s success should not be exaggerated. All nationalism’s 40 per cent share is well short of what is necessary for calling the border poll which is likely in time to become a Sinn Féin demand. Nationalist voters may have been keener to punish Arlene Foster and the DUP for arrogance than advance the cause of Irish unity. In any hypothetical straight vote in the Assembly  to test support for Irish unity, the pro-union side could muster around 50 votes to nationalism’s 40. There were other successes. The non- sectarian Alliance party held its 8 seats. The first call for cross community voting, controversially made by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, ironically helped  save all 12 seats for the minority nationalist SDLP, although  at the cost of losing six of their own 16 seats and Nesbitt’s resignation. Nevertheless the score for centre parties could count in simple majority votes in an Assembly so finely balanced between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

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Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions

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The Northern Ireland Community Relations Council’s fourth Peace Monitoring Report, written by Robin Wilson, was published in September. Brian Walker offers an overview of a wide-ranging report in which it is concluded that Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but that too little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions.

‘It was all going so well’, lamented an anonymous Northern Ireland civil servant in response to the Brexit referendum result, fearing for the cohesion of the power sharing partners in government who had just been presented with a new theme to divide them.  While the DUP supported Leave and Sinn Féin were for Remain, the region’s voters had breached the sectarian boundaries to support Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. But with the overall result for Leave, the Irish border was suddenly thrust back into politics, just after an Assembly election in which the constitutional issue had barely figured. Now external threats of as yet uncertain severity are looming for the province, as they also affect the future of the Irish border and the British Union.

The outworking of Brexit is one of the causes of potential instability identified in the compendious fourth Peace Monitoring Report published by the NI Community Relations Council. Written by erstwhile Constitution Unit associate Robin Wilson, who contributed regularly to our devolution monitoring reports in the first decade of devolution, it ranges far more widely than purely ‘peace’ issues to constitute a uniquely comprehensive ‘condition of Northern Ireland’ report from 2014 to the present. As such it provides indispensible background. The report is more analytical than prescriptive, much less prophetic, but the direction of travel is clear. For inspiration it relies heavily on comparisons with international best practice which are generally locally ignored, but on which the author is an acknowledged expert.

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A tale of two Unions: can circles be squared by a new devolution settlement?

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In the wake of the EU referendum result there has been much discussion about the possibility of Scotland and Northern Ireland preserving closer relationships with the EU than the UK as a whole. Brian Walker writes that the idea that Scotland and Northern Ireland could be exempted from Brexit lacks credibility, but that demands for some sort of continuing relationship with the EU should be examined closely. Failure to take these suggestions seriously could have significant implications for the future of the British Union.

No one can have been surprised that fundamental political fault lines opened up again in the shock of the Brexit referendum result. As the Westminster government struggle to find a platform to stand on to trigger Article 50, in Scotland the issues are being treated with considerable caution and in Ireland with something close to despair. Viewed from Westminster, each is still a sideshow because a brutal binary choice between the continuing UK and continuing membership of the EU is one they are not ready to face. Indeed, since the referendum polling in favour of fundamental constitutional change has barely shifted.  In Scotland support for independence still scores a few notches under 50 per cent, well short of the SNP’s target of 60 per cent for calling a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, while Sinn Féin promptly called for a border poll, an Ipsos MORI opinion survey for the BBC released published in early September found 63 per cent in favour of the continuing UK, only two points below a similar survey three years ago, with a resounding 83 per cent claiming the Brexit result did not affect their opinion.

But it would be a mistake to believe that in the end the Scots and all kinds of Irish will tag along behind England’s lead. New thinking is emerging that might allow the ‘nations’ to preserve relationships with the EU which are compatible with an increasingly devolving UK that has severed its main institutional links with the EU at the centre.

Constitutionally, the argument that their Remain majorities might win Scotland and Northern Ireland straight exemptions from the overall referendum result tout court lacks credibility. The ‘reverse Greenland model’ has its attractions but the difference in scale and complexity with the British Isles makes it difficult to follow beyond the basic notion.

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Brexit and Northern Ireland: early indications are that post-Good Friday Agreement relationships will survive quite well

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Following the result of the EU referendum there was much concern about what Brexit would mean for the peace process in Northern Ireland. Brian Walker writes that, although the full ramifications of Brexit are as yet unclear, at this early stage it seems that post-Good Friday Agreement relationships will in fact survive the severe stress tests of Brexit quite well.

In the Irish Republic, the Brexit result reawakened some of the worst nightmares and revived a familiar debate. The nightmare acted on an already volatile situation in which the Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny is under internal challenge as leader of a minority coalition supported by a confidence and supply arrangement with the main (and now reviving) opposition party Fianna Fáil, with Sinn Féin as a third force trying to exploit differences between them. Not a stable situation.  At Stormont the new two party coalition of the DUP and Sinn Féin split Leave to Remain respectively, while the newly created opposition outside the Executive mainly supported Remain.

Federating the Brexit verdict  

As in Scotland demands were made that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU as a consequence of the local majority for Remain. It is hard to see how this could apply retrospectively. In any case the demands will not make headway as neither government will support them. Indeed they seem more of a tactic to press the British government to include the devolved administrations not only in consultations but in the actual negotiations over Article 50. Legal action is threatened to try to ensure Stormont’s as well as the Westminster parliament’s approval for the UK’s eventual negotiating position.

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement 

Because the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is an international treaty the hare is raised that Irish permission would be necessary to amend it. My informal legal guidance suggests probably not.  Moreover the Irish government are unlikely to make it a point of legal challenge. The GFA has little to say about the EU, therefore there would appear to be little to negotiate about in it.  However, like all other relevant UK law the Northern Ireland Acts which implement the GFA are EU compliant and are therefore liable to repeal. The repeal of EU legal compliance in the GFA’s enabling legislation might be used to bolster an argument to try to keep Northern Ireland within the EU. An attempt to block it would fail to win cross-community support and no devolved administration has a formal veto. But maintaining EU compliance might form a basis for some sort of associated status with the EU for Northern Ireland (and Scotland), if that were to emerge as a possible solution.

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The future of the union: It’s about politics, stupid!

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On Friday 5 June, the Constitution Unit and the Wales Governance Centre jointly sponsored a conference of politicians and academics on ‘Devolution and the Future of The Union’ at the British Academy. It followed up a series of separate reports by them and by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and the Institute for Government, urging an end to the UK’s government’s piecemeal approach to devolution. But the Scotland Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday made it clear that the political parties are not rushing to heed the academic advice. Brian Walker reflects on the differences between the two agendas.

The two rival victors in the general election have made opening moves over the future of the United Kingdom. After the second reading debate, government sources let it be known that the Scotland Bill based on the Smith Commission report was all Scotland was going to get this session, while the SNP played down full fiscal autonomy as one of its early aims. But this still leaves plenty to dispute. SNP demands for ’Smith plus’ – in the shape of further powers on job creation, taxation, welfare and wages – were left hanging. No clue was offered as to how the balance would be negotiated between pooling and sharing at UK level, and the extensive new fiscal powers being awarded to Holyrood. While the Barnett formula which disproportionally benefits Scotland remains in place, the government’s position contains the implicit challenge: if you want to take public service provision further, pay for it yourselves.

Fiscal devolution: Barnett and other issues

At the conference, it was the English local government expert Tony Travers who put his finger on the issue likely to feature more prominently than purely constitutional matters. ‘The Conservative aim of shrinking of the state to 36% of GDP raises big questions of how to sustain public services’. It is hardly shock news that there will be no increase in subvention levels from Westminster for further devolution under the Chancellor’s latest programme of fiscal consolidation. In his much-vaunted ‘Northern powerhouse’ plan, budgets will be concentrated for maximum effect, not increased. Fiscal tightening has already aggravated the stand-off between Westminster and Cardiff Bay over the ‘unfairness’ of Wales’ Barnett deal, and it has produced an anti-austerity rebellion at Stormont which could threatened the survival of the power sharing institutions. From the start of the parliament, political tensions over devolution seem set to rise, with unpredictable results for the future of the UK.

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Almost unnoticed, a new Agreement has been negotiated to try to end political deadlock in Northern Ireland

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Brian Walker offers a comprehensive overview of the Stormont House Agreement, passed just before Christmas. Although it attracted little comment from the outside world, the Agreement sought to take action on longstanding issues underpinning the recent deadlock.

The background

At first sight, apart from coinciding with great festivals of the Christian calendar, the contrast between the Stormont House Agreement negotiated by the Northern Ireland parties two days before Christmas and the historic Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement of 1998 (GFA) could hardly be greater. The GFA brought thirty years of violence to an end and the Assembly into precarious existence. Stormont House passed with little comment from the outside world and even at home. Although the executives of the two main parties the unionist DUP and the republican Sinn Fein endorsed the deal, it is far from clear what exactly has been agreed. True, the threat of breakdown was never far away in the outworking of the GFA. Towards the end of last year rumbles of impending collapse were heard again but this time they lacked conviction. No one has an interest in collapsing the system today. All the same, the need for a basic examination of power sharing had become pressing as relations had soured. With sporadic trouble in the streets and the continuing threat of violence from republican dissidents, the leading parties the DUP and Sinn Fein were torn between their roles as sectarian champions and their responsibilities as partners in government, with the former too often winning out.

The all-party consociational form of government the GFA introduced had indeed been successful in locking opposite political poles together. The big question for the negotiations at Stormont House, a residence for UK ministers, was whether the system could allow for breakout from the communal constraints to produce something closer to “normal” government for a “normal” society. So after weeks of talking about an extending agenda of deadlock, the parties seem to have felt they could not afford to walk away with nothing.

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