The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement at 25: the need for coherent engagement in London

Alan Whysall, author of the Constitution Unit’s recent paper on The [Belfast/Good Friday] Agreement at 25, looks at immediate political prospects in Northern Ireland. The next few months may decide whether the Agreement has a future and London, he suggests, must show sustained commitment and leadership. Getting the institutions back is the starting point for reviving the Agreement, but there is much more to do.

For over a year, the DUP, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, has prevented the Assembly and Executive from functioning, in its dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework. Hardliners urge it on, though other unionists oppose the veto on government.

The crux of the unionist objections varies within and between parties. Some emphasise the Irish sea border, the inconveniences of which may be significantly alleviated by the Framework. Others focus on constitutional fundamentals, as they see them: the continuing role of EU law and the European Court of Justice (because Northern Ireland remains within the European Single Market for goods) and the alleged impact of the Protocol on its place in the Union. Some speak of Northern Ireland as an EU ‘colony’; some now openly reject the Agreement. They see refusing to enter government as ‘leverage’ with London (implying the slightly odd characterisation of their participation in self-government as a favour to others).

Meanwhile civil servants run the administration, but without legal authority to take new policy initiatives – and doubtful legitimacy for making contentious decisions. That has just come to the fore with a difficult budget, set from London in the absence of an Executive, embodying real term cuts of 6.4%. Civil servants may be expected to decide where the impact should fall, and are objecting publicly.

Where will the negotiation lead?

Political movement is unlikely before the 18 May local government elections. The DUP may want to negotiate on the Windsor Framework; measures safeguarding the Union; and other sweeteners (including, as always, money). But there are serious limits to what is possible. The present government in London is unlikely to reopen the Framework – there may be flexibilities around implementation, but anything more risks reviving conflict with Brussels. The government has promised ‘legal reassurances’ about Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, but how much more it can offer is doubtful (it is already expressly protected: broadening the guarantee to prevent changes unionists object to would be strongly resisted).

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Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

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Post-election negotiations in Northern Ireland must set the Belfast Agreement on a firmer footing and re-establish constructive politics

Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate of the Constitution Unit, looks at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections held last week. He suggests that the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement continue to weaken, and there is no sign of the government offering any response that might strengthen them; its proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol risk making matters worse. Alan’s discussion paper on Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections was published last Friday, and is summarised in this blog, and discussed in this podcast.

The election results, though well forecast by polling, were reported in dramatic terms by media outside Northern Ireland, with coverage focusing on Sinn Féin displacing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the largest party.

They reflect the increasing polarisation of Northern Ireland politics, fuelled by unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol. So Traditional Unionist Voice, to the right of the DUP, tripled its vote. The DUP lost approaching a quarter of its vote – but probably, with its line that only it could ensure there was a unionist First Minister, scooped up some support from the Ulster Unionists, who fared poorly. In the event, the DUP won 25 seats, more than many predicted.

But the line about First Ministers was heard even more on the other side, resulting in more nationalist votes going to Sinn Féin. That made it the largest party in the Assembly with 27 seats. The nationalist SDLP lost out grievously; with eight members, it is too small to gain a ministerial position.

The other notable phenomenon in the election, though, was the rise of the centre ground, those identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist – which means now, almost exclusively, the Alliance party. Alliance more than doubled its Assembly seats to 17. It is now the third largest party, instead of fifth. The binary assumptions of the Agreement, that politics is essentially about unionist and nationalist blocs, may be increasingly unsustainable.

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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 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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