Northern Ireland after the election

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The Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March is likely to be followed by a difficult political negotiation. Alan Whysall argues that it must not be mere political sticking plaster. There is no real alternative to the basic architecture of the institutions, but there are fundamental issues to be dealt with about the way they operate. And that is too important to be left to politicians alone: people in Northern Ireland outside politics need to get involved in setting the agenda.

As my previous blog post, published last week, outlined, we are likely to be in a profoundly difficult position after the election on 2 March, whatever the result. The recent departure from the Assembly through ill-health of Martin McGuinness, a figure of stature and experience, will make things no easier. There will be at most three weeks to find a basis for the restoration of devolved government – failing which fresh elections would by law be called. More likely, Westminster would conclude that it had to reimpose direct rule: but that would make reaching a settlement much more difficult and protracted. It is probably the last thing that any of the main parties want, but we may be back to games of chicken; and there is a risk of politics running out of control.

There is likely to be an intensive political negotiation whatever happens. Preferably, it would if necessary take place in parallel with a resumed devolved government, with the parties agreeing to stay until perhaps September – however imperfect from the good government point of view. Here are some thoughts about how it should be approached.

First, flawed though its operation has been, the present set of institutions is the best we can hope for in current circumstances – subject to some adjustments to the way it functions.  So long as the electorate continue to vote largely for parties representing one part of the Northern Ireland community or other, if there is not a form of government that engages the energies of both then constructive politics will be impossible. Nationalists are likely to see attempts to replace mandatory coalition with something else, whatever the safeguards offered, as an unacceptable attempt to undermine their influence.

But the system needs to operate in a new political climate if it is to function stably and effectively: for that it needs new attitudes, new ideas, new people. This is not to dismiss the Northern Ireland political class wholesale: they operate in the environment they are given.

But the present politics yield no vision, hence inspire no-one. Politics in Northern Ireland is probably even more of a bubble activity than elsewhere in the western world. In particular it turns young people off. It discourages reflection about the most important long term problems, fixating on the traditional issues. There is an obsession with scandal, because the system is widely seen as corrupt – probably much more than it in fact is. And people deplore the lack of respect among politicians – witness the widespread welcome when Ian Paisley Jr, unlike others in his party, spoke warmly and decently of the ailing Martin McGuinness.

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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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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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