A new approach to deadlock in Northern Ireland

After Northern Ireland’s political parties missed the latest deadline for reaching an agreement to restore devolved government, the current Assembly crisis is now the longest for over a decade. In this post Brian Walker suggests a new approach that might help to break the deadlock.

Standing back, it’s easy enough to see why the latest Assembly crisis is the longest and most intractable for over a decade. Unusually in recent times and in sharp contrast to the heady days of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), this breakdown is set against a background of momentous upheaval which, typically, the local politicians have rushed to exploit for their own causes. For the DUP, Brexit revives the prospect of a physical border which in whatever final form confirms the fact of the Union. For Sinn Féin the prospect of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU as part of a united Ireland opens up a new route to the elusive old destination. Both parties now enjoy uncertain leverage in the two parliaments of their allegiance where minority governments uncertainly rule.

If Sinn Féin’s narrative of a people’s surge of rebellion against DUP intransigence is not entirely convincing, it cannot be denied that events outside have given fresh impetus to the struggle for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Internally, the frustrations of power sharing by which the winning parties are always denied the fruits of clear victory might otherwise have been contained, had it not been for a remarkable coincidence of the green energy fiasco and the fatal illness of Martin McGuinness. For Sinn Féin the chance of exploring whether Assembly elections could become one more useful stage in an unending series of mini-referendums to create momentum for a border poll was too good to miss. In the short run the tactic has not delivered, but the contest may become all the keener with the impending emergence of a Catholic voting majority. All election victories look like becoming marginal from now on and the prospect of a well functioning Assembly all the more uncertain. Or so it appears at the moment. As recently as May last year it all looked rather different.

The shortcomings of the UK government

Faced with the collapse of the Assembly, the British government’s attitude  was curiously passive until almost the last minute, compared to the close engagement of earlier years when in a high pressure environment prime ministers presided, ears were constantly bent and many draft proposals circulated. Even after making due allowance for mediation fatigue, this looks like a fundamental error, though whether out of calculation or incompetence is unclear. It is not enough to claim – rightly – that the government have bigger things to worry about: they usually do. For under the guise of respecting devolution (interestingly also the reason given for denying Northern Irish women abortions on the NHS in England and now overthrown), a Conservative pattern of relative disengagement since 2010 has weakened the British government’s authority and exposed a loss of touch. Secretary of State James Brokenshire’s impartiality was compromised from the moment he complained about legal action against ex-soldiers in January. He appeared to care more about the Tory cause of shielding them from possible prosecution than his essential role as a minister.

As an organising principle for the talks, the split between devolved and non- devolved matters, with the former chaired by the apolitical figure of the head of the civil service, was a pointless distinction.  While insisting on the sovereign power’s prerogatives, Brokenshire exercised them very little. The present government’s line on Brexit already placed them on the opposite side from nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland whose ultimate aim is to dismantle ‘the precious, precious Union’ they are pledged to defend. Might that have been a reason for letting the locals get on with it? The Secretary of State’s role as the judge of a majority in favour of a border poll is  therefore unlikely to survive unchallenged.

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Following the general election, where now for Northern Ireland?

The general election result has done little to halt the steady unravelling of the political situation in Northern Ireland, and may accelerate it. In this post Alan Whysall discusses the implications of the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP, expected to be agreed in the coming days, and what might happen next.  

As Theresa May reaches out to Northern Ireland for support, the political situation there has been steadily unravelling. A pact with the DUP – which has been on the point of emerging for several days, and may appear today, or may not – is unlikely to stop the unravelling. It could accelerate it – not necessarily, but unless there are changes in outlook in Northern Ireland politics, not least from the British government, we risk losing many of the gains that have followed from the Good Friday Agreement.

The unravelling started a while ago…

Earlier blogs have outlined the increasing disarray in Northern Ireland politics since the turn of the year, here, here and here. The following is a brief summary for those who have not kept up.

Sinn Féin, which along with the DUP had constituted the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, pulled the plug on it in January. Ostensibly this was because of financial scandal involving the First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, in an earlier ministerial life. But the underlying causes had more to do with the way that the DUP treated nationalism, and Brexit.

An election to the Northern Ireland Assembly followed in March. It was highly polarising. Although there have been existential crises in the life of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, elections have generally been conducted in a spirit of renewed commitment to work together. And voters increasingly came to like and expect that language – even if there was increasing disillusion at the performance of the devolved institutions.

There was little talk of working together in this Assembly election, however. The reversion in recent months to rhetoric redolent of the days before the Agreement has been marked. Arlene Foster’s spirited attacks on Sinn Féin in fact contributed to a strengthening of its vote – the overall nationalist vote had been flagging in recent elections, but now dramatically bounced back. There was also some strengthening of the middle ground, but the more moderate Unionist and nationalist parties the UUP and SDLP did less well.

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