A watershed is reached in Northern Ireland

Last week’s snap election in Northern Ireland saw the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin reduced to a single seat and an Assembly without a unionist majority returned for the first time in the institution’s history. Brian Walker digests the result and considers what might happen next.

Gerry Adams was justified in declaring that the perpetual unionist majority since 1921 was ‘demolished’ in Northern Ireland’s snap election on 2 March. Only 40 seats in an Assembly of 90 members went to the two unionist-designated parties, with Sinn Féin’s 27 seats coming within a whisker of the DUP’s 28. The long-term demographic trend towards a nationalist majority in the province was at last translated into Assembly seats. Turnout, at 65 per cent, was 10 per cent up on May last year, the crucial differential turnout favouring nationalists in particular – the Sinn Féin vote was up by 57,000 compared with 23,000 for the DUP. Fairly small increases in percentage share of the vote – four per cent for nationalists, two per cent for unionists – made crucial differences accentuated by the reduction of seat numbers in the Assembly from 108 to 90. Of 16 lost in an Assembly of ten fewer seats, ten were unionists. Undoubtedly, nationalism has recovered momentum. A chance transfer of only a handful of votes could result in a Sinn Féin First Minister next time and seal the transformation.

Sinn Féin’s success should not be exaggerated. All nationalism’s 40 per cent share is well short of what is necessary for calling the border poll which is likely in time to become a Sinn Féin demand. Nationalist voters may have been keener to punish Arlene Foster and the DUP for arrogance than advance the cause of Irish unity. In any hypothetical straight vote in the Assembly  to test support for Irish unity, the pro-union side could muster around 50 votes to nationalism’s 40. There were other successes. The non- sectarian Alliance party held its 8 seats. The first call for cross community voting, controversially made by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, ironically helped  save all 12 seats for the minority nationalist SDLP, although  at the cost of losing six of their own 16 seats and Nesbitt’s resignation. Nevertheless the score for centre parties could count in simple majority votes in an Assembly so finely balanced between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

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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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Northern Ireland: where now?

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has called a fresh Assembly election for March 2, following the spectacular and unexpected collapse of the devolved Executive. The campaign seems likely to be divisive. Reviving devolved partnership government at the end, in a sustainable form, will be difficult, argues Alan Whysall, but is still the only way forward.

The deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness resigned last Monday, following the refusal of the First Minister, Arlene Foster, to step down pending investigation of her role several years ago, when Minister for Enterprise, in establishing the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The scheme (described in detail in Foster’s statement to the Assembly) was based on one in Great Britain with similar objectives, of encouraging burning of renewable fuels over traditional ones. But unlike that scheme, it provided for a subsidy that turned out to be greater than the market price of the fuel – so the more you burned, the more you earned – and did not taper with increasing use, nor reduce in rate if overall demand increased. The Northern Ireland system is left committed to making payments above its budget that may amount to £500 million over 20 years.

Everyone acknowledges that there have been, as the Audit Office concluded, ‘serious systemic failings’. But this is the latest of a string of affairs, involving DUP ministers as well as others, where rumours abound, though with no real evidence so far, of more serious malpractice. Foster’s DUP successor as Enterprise Minister fanned the flames in a TV interview: following prayers for divine support in telling the truth, offered on camera and with the assistance of a clergyman, he alleged that when the extent of the problems with the scheme emerged advisers to Foster, then Finance Minister, and to Peter Robinson, then First Minister, had sought to delay its closure.

Parts of the media have pursued this story energetically. The parties that had chosen to go into opposition in this Assembly following the May 2016 elections called loudly for Foster’s ejection from office, at least pending an enquiry. Sinn Féin, elected with the DUP on the Fresh Start agenda and pursuing a tacit non-aggression pact, were at first more measured. But as the clamour grew and the story developed, amid suggestions that they were DUP patsies, they asked that she should step aside pending inquiry. She declined.

The DFM’s resignation letter, however, lays out many other grievances bottled up in private by Sinn Féin over the preceding months. They have made clear that resumed devolved government depends on resolving them.

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Negotiating Brexit in a devolved state: the dynamics of intergovernmental relations

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Theresa May has repeatedly declared her commitment to involving the devolved governments in the Brexit process. In this post, Nicola McEwen discusses the likely dynamics of Brexit negotiations between the UK’s four governments. She argues that if the intergovernmental process fails to give a meaningful voice to the devolved governments this could have serious and long-lasting repercussions for territorial politics across the UK.

 As we ponder the forthcoming Brexit negotiations between the UK government and the EU27, another set of negotiations is already underway. The UK government and the devolved administrations have kick-started a period of intergovernmental relations which promise to be more intense than any that have gone before. This is a high stakes process. The extent to which it gives a meaningful voice to the devolved governments represents the Union’s biggest test since the Scottish independence referendum.

The Prime Minister has frequently declared her commitment to engaging with the devolved governments. After her symbolically significant visit to meet Scotland’s First Minister shortly after she assumed office, Theresa May noted: ‘I have already said that I won’t be triggering Article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations – I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger Article 50.’ There have been some mixed messages since then, but at October’s plenary session of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) – the first since December 2014 – the PM continued to insist she wanted the input of the devolved administrations in shaping Brexit: ‘The country is facing a negotiation of tremendous importance and it is imperative that the devolved administrations play their part in making it work.’ Quite what part she envisages them playing remains unclear.

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Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions

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The Northern Ireland Community Relations Council’s fourth Peace Monitoring Report, written by Robin Wilson, was published in September. Brian Walker offers an overview of a wide-ranging report in which it is concluded that Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but that too little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions.

‘It was all going so well’, lamented an anonymous Northern Ireland civil servant in response to the Brexit referendum result, fearing for the cohesion of the power sharing partners in government who had just been presented with a new theme to divide them.  While the DUP supported Leave and Sinn Féin were for Remain, the region’s voters had breached the sectarian boundaries to support Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. But with the overall result for Leave, the Irish border was suddenly thrust back into politics, just after an Assembly election in which the constitutional issue had barely figured. Now external threats of as yet uncertain severity are looming for the province, as they also affect the future of the Irish border and the British Union.

The outworking of Brexit is one of the causes of potential instability identified in the compendious fourth Peace Monitoring Report published by the NI Community Relations Council. Written by erstwhile Constitution Unit associate Robin Wilson, who contributed regularly to our devolution monitoring reports in the first decade of devolution, it ranges far more widely than purely ‘peace’ issues to constitute a uniquely comprehensive ‘condition of Northern Ireland’ report from 2014 to the present. As such it provides indispensible background. The report is more analytical than prescriptive, much less prophetic, but the direction of travel is clear. For inspiration it relies heavily on comparisons with international best practice which are generally locally ignored, but on which the author is an acknowledged expert.

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Brexit presents an opportunity to move towards a confederal UK

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On the face of it Brexit appears likely to pull Scotland in a direction that it does not want to go. But could Brexit actually create the conditions for a solution that leaves most people happy enough, and does not leave the other side resentful? Jim Gallagher suggests that this is a possibility. The return of powers from Brussels not only to Whitehall, but also the devolved governments, presents an opportunity to move towards a confederal constitution that could satisfy the demands of people in all parts of the Union.

The absence of a coherent strategy for getting the UK out of Europe is becoming increasingly clear. Brexit is construed ever more narrowly as simply a bid for independence, a search for sovereignty (not parliamentary sovereignty, it seems, as parliament will have no say in triggering the negotiations leading to the UK’s departure). This tells us something about referendums as a decision-making device, and points to what a bad idea Brexit as a pretext for another Scottish independence referendum is. But, paradoxically, the government’s post-Brexit destination might just offer the chance of a more constructive resolution for Scottish-UK relations.

It is increasingly clear that Brexit was a nationalist referendum. Both sides would be insulted by the comparison, but Messrs Johnson and Gove spent the campaign singing the same tune as Alex Salmond. Both claimed to be positive, but were essentially negative. They were telling people to vote against a union – European or British. But voting against something is writing a blank cheque for something else. And if you write a blank cheque, somebody else fills it in.

In Whitehall today, the three Brexit ministers can’t agree how to fill that cheque in. That’s hardly surprising, since their pre-referendum promises were inconsistent: we are not going to get the single market without free movement of labour. This shows the first big problem with the referendum as a device. If people vote against something, there is no saying what they will get instead, and when the campaigners aren’t in a position to deliver their promises, the outcome will probably be something the population don’t actually want. Chances are, had it been offered them in terms, a majority of voters would have rejected the Brexit deal we are about to get.

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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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