Northern Ireland: how can power-sharing be revived?

Alan Whysall was a panellist in the session on Northern Ireland at the Unit’s State of the Constitution conference on 23 June. This revision of his talk draws on his paper for the Unit on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, and its accompanying blogpost. He argues that stable power-sharing can only return through good faith inclusive negotiation – which is not a part of London’s current approach – and a reinforcement of the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

It is essential to bring all the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions back as soon as possible: that unlocks the potential for political progress. Without the institutions, polarisation grows; the longer they are away, the harder ultimately the Agreement settlement is to sustain. And there is no alternative as a framework for the stable government of Northern Ireland.

Devolution still has wide popular support and the political class has a strong self-interest in restoring the institutions, if only because paying them not to undertake government is becoming unpopular. But there are big questions about how.

The government’s approach

Can the institutions be stably restored the government’s way? Setting aside for now judgements about the government’s approach, its integrity, or the extraordinary contents (breach of international obligations, vast delegation of powers to ministers) of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, this seems to me to be doubtful.

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Are unionists the biggest threat to the Union?

There has been much debate in recent years (on this blog and elsewhere) on the validity of a second referendum on an independent Scotland. Defence of the Union has often been by reassertion of the unitary nation-state model. Michael Keating argues that this demonstrates a fundamental misconception of what union means, and that the nationalism implied by the nature of a union maintained by law, rather than the consent of its people, represents a threat to the continuing Union of the United Kingdom.

In its 2020 White Paper on the Internal Market, the British government described the United Kingdom as a ‘unitary state’. Although, for many at Westminster, this might sound rather banal, it betrays a serious misunderstanding of what is, and always has been, a plurinational union. Such misunderstandings are pulling the Union apart.

Four dimensions

In my book State and Nation in the United Kingdom, I spell out the difference between a unitary nation-state and a plurinational union by reference to four dimensions: demos; telos; ethos; and sovereignty.

Demos refers to the people and whether they are singular or plural. When prime ministers declare that ‘the British people’ voted for Brexit, they are invoking a unitary demos, but begging the question of what ‘the British people’ actually means. In fact, the peoples of ‘these islands’ have varied national identities, some identifying only as British and others not seeing themselves as British at all. It is not as simple as four separate identities because, within each of the component nations, there are complex forms of belonging and multiple forms of national identification. Some unionists are now arguing that Britishness is a common, overarching identity but that, underneath it, are the local varieties. Yet this does not work either. Britishness itself is experienced and defined very differently from one part of the United Kingdom to another. The fact that the United Kingdom does not even have an adjective for its citizens indicates the difficulty of fitting Northern Ireland in. Britishness is analogous to what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’. Any two members of the family may share a feature in common but there is no feature common to them all.

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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 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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