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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Green shoots for the Union? The joint review of intergovernmental relations

A review of intergovernmental relations conducted jointly by the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was published last week. Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon argue that the most important question facing the proposed new model for intergovernmental relations will be whether an enhanced system for bringing these governments into partnership will be endowed with real respect, and be allowed to take root, by the politicians at the helm.

The territorial chasm that opened beneath the Conservative Party’s feet following the demand made by Douglas Ross, its Scottish leader, that Boris Johnson resign, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s retaliatory dismissal of him as ‘not a big figure’, shone an unflattering spotlight on some of the sharp tensions that devolution has created within the UK’s political parties.  

A much deeper divide has opened up in recent years between the UK government and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Tensions that have been simmering since the election of administrations headed by different parties across the UK over a decade ago were exacerbated during the extended Brexit crisis, and since then more salt has been rubbed on these wounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. First Ministers Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been incentivised to make much of often minor differences in their approach from that adopted by the Johnson government. And yet there has been an abiding need for them and Whitehall to work together in the face of an airborne virus that does not respect the authority of internal borders.

While addressing the sharp differences that have emerged within the Conservative party looks difficult so long as Johnson remains in power, there is at least some cause for optimism that more functional arrangements for co-operation and engagement between the four governments within the UK are being put in place.

This arises specifically from the publication of the report of a long-running joint review which has been conducted by government officials from all parts of the UK. Landing amid the ‘partygate’ crisis engulfing Boris Johnson’s government, it has been largely ignored by the media and politicians at Westminster. But its content, and the thinking animating it, could prove to be an important factor in the future evolution and viability of the UK Union.

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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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The public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland

Following the report of its Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Unit will in the coming weeks publish a discussion paper on the wider political options for Northern Ireland. In the first part of this blog, Alan Whysall, the author of the paper, sets it in the current political context, and discusses the public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland. The second part, which will be published later today, considers longer term destinies, and what can be done to encourage more realistic debate, and ultimately constructive politics, in Northern Ireland.

Introduction

Politics will resume in Northern Ireland after the summer in deep conflict. But much of the political debate is totemic, neglecting the realities of public policy in Northern Ireland now.

The unreality of the debate reflects the unwinding of constructive politics, such as was seen in the better days following the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998.  

And the increasing talk of broader constitutional destinies is cast in vague and general terms, reminiscent of the Brexit debate; on one side, it often obscures serious issues that constitutional change would raise; on the other, it takes little account of the changing nature of Northern Ireland society.

The discussion paper

The discussion paper will aim, in a neutral spirit, to point up pressing immediate issues that need to be analysed and acted on; and key aspects of the debate about potential destinies.

And it will ask how a spirit of constructive political endeavour can be restored.

Is it practical to think of a renewed Agreement?

The paper will offer some tentative answers to the questions it raises, but it really does need to spark a discussion. Political tensions may once again reach breaking point before very long: and answers to the questions may be needed.

Finally, the paper asks who is to drive the effort towards changed debate and politics. The British and Irish governments have often sought to keep the Northern Ireland political system on the rails, and to impart new impetus. But at present their differences may mean they are challenged in doing so.

So the paper also asks whether others in Northern Ireland can help.

Dealing with the here and now

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The Northern Ireland Protocol looms over Northern Ireland politics. Brexit has been profoundly disruptive. It was the first major change in the arrangements established after the Good Friday Agreement that lacked the cross-community support by which the Agreement was reached – indeed Northern Ireland voted Remain. Hard Brexit inevitably meant more borders somewhere in or around Ireland. The Protocol is the outworking.

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Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

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