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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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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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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