Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections

The Constitution Unit has today published a new discussion paper entitled Northern Ireland’s political future: Challenges after the Assembly elections. Here the author, Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, introduces it. A further paper on longer-term prospects for Northern Ireland will be published later this year.

Northern Ireland voted for a new Assembly yesterday; the results will emerge over the coming hours and days. Thereafter, talks will begin on the formation of a new Executive. What happens in these negotiations matters profoundly for the future of Northern Ireland. It should also be of great concern to ministers in London. The future of the power-sharing arrangements that have brought stability to Northern Ireland for almost a quarter of a century may be at stake.

In current difficulties, there is also the potential to bring about change for the better. The paper explores what renewal of the Agreement might involve.

The present situation

Northern Ireland’s governing arrangements follow the principles set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998. Core to the Agreement is the principle of power-sharing. The Executive is headed by a First Minister and a deputy First Minister, who must come from different political traditions, and who exercise equal powers conjointly. All but the smallest parties in the Assembly – which is elected by proportional representation – are entitled to hold ministerial briefs.

These arrangements are in a state of semi-collapse. The largest party in the outgoing Assembly, the Democratic Unionists, withdrew its First Minister in February, meaning that the Executive has, since then, been unable to meet. Though other ministers remain, they are effectively caretakers. There is a period of up to six months following the election in which to find political agreement on forming a new Executive. The DUP says it will not go fully back into the Executive unless its demands are met for changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Shifts in voting patterns may mean institutional changes are called for. But there are deeper failings within the Northern Ireland polity.

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The Belfast/Good Friday agreement’s three strands have not outlived their usefulness

Voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new Assembly. In the weeks which follow, attention is likely to be focused on reviving the Stormont institutions following the recent instability surrounding the Protocol and the resignation of the First Minister. However, the other institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, designed to manage the British–Irish and North–South relationships, are underused and underdeveloped. Conor J Kelly and Etain Tannam argue below for the robust use of these strands of the Agreement to provide more constructive forms of political engagement.

The recent collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and divisions over the Protocol have led to fresh questions about whether the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has outlived its usefulness. This blog does not aim to defend or criticise the Protocol, but instead shows the continued importance of the 1998 Agreement for a divided society in the Brexit context. In particular, we highlight the continued relevance of the Agreement’s ‘three strands’ for democratic governance in light of the Protocol. Amidst deep concerns over whether it will be possible to form a new Executive after the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly taking place this Thursday, the importance of these core features of the Agreement needs renewed emphasis.

Although the 1998 Agreement has been a great achievement in bringing about peace, it has been less successful in bringing about stable government. In addition, it has always faced challenges from some unionist critics and those most opposed to the Protocol are also opposed to the Agreement. The recent stand-off between the UK government and European Union on the Protocol has made those critics all the louder. Yet, many of the faults with politics since 1998 lie not in the Agreement itself, but in the failure to implement it robustly.

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The political foundations of Northern Ireland are at risk of crumbling

Not for the first time in recent memory, Northern Irish politics is in flux, the UK government’s Brexit deal is causing ructions and the power-sharing institutions are on the brink of collapse. Alan Whysall assesses the current crisis and argues that the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are at serious risk of crumbling.

Northern Ireland appears headed for further political turbulence, and it is not clear that devolved government will survive. Two steps within 24 hours by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), currently the largest party in the Assembly, have triggered this.

On Wednesday night, the DUP Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, announced that his staff would no longer carry out checks required at Northern Ireland ports under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

On Thursday afternoon, the DUP First Minister (FM) of Northern Ireland, Paul Givan, announced that he would resign his office on Friday morning over the Protocol, although his resignation letter was short on specifics.

A couple of years ago, the DUP leadership was suggesting that, notwithstanding additional border checks in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland should make the best of the Protocol, which gives it free access for goods to the single markets of both the EU and the UK. But the party was losing support in polling both to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, and to the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – which continues. Arlene Foster was ousted as leader and First Minister last year, and Edwin Poots became leader, lasting three weeks before he himself was removed, to be replaced by Jeffrey Donaldson. The party has become increasingly strident in its demands for the replacement of the Protocol in its present form, and since last summer Donaldson has been threatening to collapse the institutions over the issue.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not cause the Brexit impasse

Next week MPs debate the government’s bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. One argument frequently deployed for scrapping the Act is that it generated gridlock over Brexit. But, Meg Russell argues, no clear counterfactual to support this claim has ever been presented. In fact, when considering the possible scenarios, it seems likely that the situation would have been made worse, not better, had the Prime Minister retained an untrammelled prerogative power to dissolve parliament in 2017–19.

Next week MPs debate the remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It proposes to reinstate the pre-FTPA position, whereby the Prime Minister would effectively control general election timing using prerogative power. A key argument deployed by those seeking repeal of the FTPA is that it helped to cause the Brexit deadlock of 2019: that the FTPA, as the Conservative manifesto put it, ‘led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’. But to what extent is this really true?

While suggestions that the FTPA created the Brexit deadlock are commonplace, most experts who contributed to the three parliamentary committees that have considered FTPA repeal (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lords Constitution Committee and Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) argued that the deadlock resulted from other factors. Most obvious were the post-2017 combination of a minority government, the need to deliver on a contested referendum result, and deep divisions within the governing party. These problems were clearly serious, and it is very far from clear that the FTPA could have resolved them.

A careful reading of the evidence presented to the three parliamentary committees, and of the Commons second reading debate on the bill, finds that most claims against the FTPA over Brexit are distinctly vague. No clear counterfactual is offered. This particularly applies to events during Theresa May’s premiership, when the most intractable problems arose. The situation did change in the autumn of 2019 under Boris Johnson (as discussed below), but the FTPA’s targeting as a causal factor dates back far earlier than this. Likewise, during interviews with a series of senior figures for a current book project on parliament and the Brexit process, I have asked several critics of the FTPA how, if Theresa May had been able to trigger an early general election without parliament’s consent, things would have turned out differently. I have yet to receive a convincing reply.

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Renewing and reviving the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement

Alan Whysall, a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, discusses the potential longer term constitutional destinies of Northern Ireland. He also analyses how we can ensure a more satisfactory debate, an ultimately more constructive politics, and the possible renewal of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The first part of this blog, which prefigures a discussion paper from the Constitution Unit, was published earlier today.

Destinies

Since the Brexit referendum, the debate on the Union versus Irish unity has stepped up.

Some suggest we are at a tipping point, where change might come quickly, because of Brexit, lack of faith in London, fractures in politics, disappointed expectations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – in Irish terms, perhaps, a period like the second decade of the twentieth century.

These developments may well have changed the political climate so far that reverting to the politics of five or 10 years ago is impossible.

But what we are heading towards is unclear. Fatalism would be a particularly misguided approach: there are no predestined outcomes, and certainly no panaceas.

The chances of things going well are much improved by informed debate, and by making every effort to sustain a constructive political process.

Without those conditions, we may well be on the road to nowhere, or a destination increasingly unwanted either in Britain or the South.

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