Northern Ireland talks: is a deal in prospect?

Northern Ireland remains without a government. Dialogue has resumed, but the climate is conflictual, and exacerbated by Brexit. The foundations of the Good Friday Agreement may now be seriously shaken. There is some talk of a deal being in prospect, but room for doubt that anything lasting can be achieved. Alan Whysall provides an update and suggests that handling of Northern Ireland once again needs the priority, care, understanding and courage it received from previous governments.

My previous blog set the scene: two polarising elections – to the Northern Ireland Assembly and then Westminster – have failed so far to restore devolved government, following its collapse at the beginning of the year; rather, they reinforced the position of the two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, at the expense of moderates. The nationalist vote, which had been shrinking, has bounced back, which along with the prospect of Brexit has renewed the focus of Irish nationalism on unity. Since Sinn Féin do not take their seats in the Commons and the SDLP no longer has any seats, it is now without any nationalist voice.

Where are we now?

At Westminster, following the election, the Conservative party and DUP reached a confidence and supply agreement. The DUP will support the government throughout this parliament on votes on confidence and finance, as well as Brexit and national security. However, the DUP are to ‘have no involvement in the UK government’s role in political talks in Northern Ireland’. The government will provide extra funding for Northern Ireland totalling about £1 billion over the coming years. It seems to be linking the extra spending to resumed devolution, the DUP denying such a linkage. The deal has been much criticised, Moody’s citing it among reasons for downgrading the UK’s debt rating. Gina Miller and others are mounting a legal challenge, with unclear prospects of success.

Meanwhile the civil service in Northern Ireland, with no ministers to give it direction, aims to ensure ’business as usual‘, but is unable to launch significant new programmes, projects or policies. No budget has been set for this year. The Secretary of State has laid down ‘indicative’ allocations, presumably by way of giving political cover, since he does not have legal authority of any kind over the devolved domain.

According to the Secretary of State, if the situation ‘is not resolved within a relatively short number of weeks will require greater political decision-making from Westminster… to begin with legislation [for] a Budget”.

In that context, he would consider whether Assembly members should still be paid, since they do not meet – one of the few levers the government really has. The DUP leader Arlene Foster, though, found this offensive. Is this a veto?

The Secretary of State spoke of a ‘glidepath’ to greater UK government intervention, implying perhaps, though he did not use the term, a reversion to direct rule, the classic regime of which was considered in an earlier blog.

Strains are emerging between the British and Irish governments over this: after the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said there could be no British-only direct rule, the British government sharply riposted that there would be no joint authority, which Coveney had not suggested. Some saw the hand of the DUP here. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the minister is right – Dublin would have substantial rights to make representations about British government actions during direct rule, though without prejudice to sovereignty.

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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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The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government

Northern Ireland has been on the sidelines of the UK general election campaign, despite continuing political deadlock and the major unresolved questions resulting from Brexit. Brian Walker suggests that this reflects a general disengagement with Northern Ireland from the May government, which has taken the view that the North’s political issues are for their politicians to sort out. The Irish government can now be said to be pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively.

Northern Ireland is accustomed to being tucked away on the sidelines of a UK general election. While it is part of the constitutional nation, it is barely part of the political nation, if that is defined by electing members of the UK government. (Scotland look out!). Its electoral cycle and political interests can fundamentally clash with those of the government at Westminster.  ‘Westminster will always put its own interests first, even if ours are about life and death’, is a familiar refrain. The snap 1974 ‘Who Governs Britain’ general election did for the first fragile power sharing Executive within weeks of its formation when voters returned a full house of MPs bent on bringing it down.  Power sharing did not return for a quarter of a century.

The collapse of the 2016 Assembly

Power sharing suddenly collapsed in the New Year under the impact of the Remain referendum result locally, which put the minority coalition partner Sinn Fein on the winning side and provided them with a test run for a bigger challenge. Devolved government remains in limbo, at least until after the snap general election on 8th June. In Ireland many nationalists rate Brexit as creating the biggest crisis since partition almost a century ago. Unionists and the British government are more circumspect.

Before the EU referendum, the Assembly had seemed to be going quite well. It had survived two terms with deadlocks but avoided collapse. Nationalists seemed broadly content with the constitutional status quo. The Sinn Féin vote had dipped and the DUP were comfortably ahead by ten out of 108 seats. A Fresh Start agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments at the end of 2015 ended a deadlock over welfare cuts that had lasted a year. It even led to behind the scenes talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to settle a new style budget, as they campaigned for the Assembly election of 2016.

But the combination of a regional Remain majority, a bitter row over holding the DUP First Minster Arlene Foster responsible for a botched renewables heating scheme and the fatal illness of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness created enough combustible material for Sinn Féin to pull out of the Assembly early this year, obliging the British government to call another election. The campaign unleashed a flood of resentment at what republicans regarded as DUP majoritarian behaviour and lack of respect for Irish culture. In particular, they pointed to the failure of unionists and the British government to implement totemic equality measures like the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Language Act provided for in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

Unionists as usual saw Sinn Féin as exaggerating minor grievances to advance the republican cause but were thrown on the defensive over resisting Sinn Féin’s demand for Foster to be suspended from office. A nationalist ‘surge’ in turnout in the Assembly election that followed in March, bluntly to ‘stick it to Arlene Foster’, brought Sinn Féin within two seats of replacing her as First Minister, as the overall nationalist result overturned the unionist bloc majority for the first time. The Sinn Féin boycott won the endorsement of their voters.   Northern Ireland had turned a chapter. The Westminster election on 8 June will be another sectarian contest to gain advantage in the existential question of Irish unity, ahead of the interparty talks on the Assembly’s future which it is hoped will resume immediately afterwards.

The political scene – changing utterly?

There are profound doubts that the talks can succeed anytime soon. It remains a sticking point for Sinn Féin for Foster not to return to office until a public inquiry rules on her conduct in about a year’s time. Moreover, when the prospect of a hard border began to emerge, Sinn Féin quickly saw the political possibilities. A re-erected border would not only be a throwback to an unlamented past; it offers a potential new route to a united Ireland. Perhaps the time has come for Sinn Féin to abandon the frustrations of power sharing in a coalition of opposites, and build on the nationalist-dominated Remain majority to create momentum for a united Ireland within the EU, launched by a border poll, followed if necessary by another poll in seven years time as the Good Friday Agreement permits?

‘She doesn’t care’

The May government’s response to the Assembly breakdown is strikingly different from the close involvement of the Blair years, when peace through paramilitary disarmament and disbandment was the main objective. Without such a big issue to compel her attention, Theresa May has followed the Cameron precedent and has remained immune to appeals from local politicians and civil society to intervene personally. ‘Leave it to themselves to sort out’ is the mantra. This UK government displays less sensitivity to the Northern Ireland implications of key policy issues than the old days of the peace process. For instance, motivated it would seem by the Prime Minister’s frustrations over deporting Abu Qatada and a visceral dislike of European courts, the Conservative manifesto looks forward to a review of the Human Rights Act when the Brexit process  has concluded, even though the HRA is entrenched in the Good Friday Agreement and any change is strongly opposed by Northern nationalists and her Irish government partners.

May’s former junior minister at the Home Office, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, paid more attention to his party than his ministerial interests when he spoke out in favour of halting prosecutions of soldiers for actions long ago, giving support to a Conservative backbench campaign first sparked by what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than Northern Ireland. It therefore came as no surprise to local opinion when Sinn Féin rejected him as a mediator in interparty talks to get the Assembly going again. Brokenshire has remained on the sidelines, his role largely limited to extending time limits for the fitful and so far unproductive talks without an active chair, an agreed agenda or any obvious sense of direction. His main leverage is to threaten another Assembly election in what would be Northern Ireland voters’ twelfth trip to the polls since the Westminster election of 2010. In fact creeping direct rule restored by primary legislation is the more likely option if the talks drag on much beyond the summer Orange marching season.

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Following Monday’s deadline, the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland remains uncertain

The legal deadline for forming a new Northern Ireland Executive has passed without agreement between the parties. This could have important political and legal consequences, including the return of ‘direct rule’. For the time being, however, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has decided to give the negotiations more time. In this addendum to his earlier blog post, published on Monday before the UK government’s statement, Alan Whysall discusses what might happen over the coming weeks.

Monday’s deadline for forming a new Executive in Northern Ireland passed without an agreement. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke afterwards, and again in parliament on Tuesday. As predicted, he decided to give the negotiation process more time, until after the Easter recess (the Commons returns on 18 April). He will then ‘as a minimum’ bring forward a Westminster bill to regularise finances (see below). The bill would also allow an Executive to be formed, if political agreement emerges. But otherwise, the government would have to ‘consider all options’. Since he made it clear further elections were unappealing, this appears to mean direct rule, though he deplored the prospect.

In most such political deadlocks worldwide, there is at least a caretaker government of some sort: but not in Northern Ireland. No–one is at present empowered to give direction to the Northern Ireland civil service. The Head of the Service set out the nature of that uncomfortable position in a letter to staff. There would be business as usual, but no new initiatives, whose legal legitimacy must be doubtful. Such an arrangement clearly cannot go on for long, and unexpected events could cause real difficulty.

And there will be great budgetary prudence. In the absence of a budget voted by the Assembly, the Finance Permanent Secretary has powers to release certain limited funds, but no more than 95 per cent in cash terms of last year’s budget; moreover, there is no authority at present to raise the principal local tax, the rates (a property tax analogous to Council Tax).

Where do the talks now go? The process to date, and the British government’s role in it, has been criticised for incoherence and lack of inclusivity; for the absence of the Prime Minister; and for lack of full partnership between the two governments. And various participants (not just nationalist) have suggested the British government cannot be an impartial chair, especially in the light of Brexit. Continue reading

Following the break down of talks in Northern Ireland, what now?

Northern Ireland’s political parties have failed to reach an agreement that would allow a new power-sharing Executive to be formed by today’s deadline. This will have important legal and political consequences, possibly including the re-introduction of ‘direct rule’ from Westminster. These issues are looked at here by Alan Whysall.

Political negotiations have been going on since the election of 2 March, which was brought about by the decision in January of Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin (who has since died) to resign as deputy First Minister. Yesterday, however, Sinn Féin said that the talks process had ‘run its course‘, and they would not be making nominations to Executive offices today. They did not say where the political process might go from here, but professed commitment to the devolved institutions returning.

Sinn Féin have significant grievances that they say must be resolved before a new Executive is formed. They have an effective veto on that happening since, as the largest nationalist party, they must nominate the deputy First Minister. Among their demands has been that the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, should not become First Minister until the report of an inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive affair that was the ostensible trigger for the election, potentially a year away. That condition would be very hard for the DUP to meet. Latterly, though, they have given precedence to their demands of the British government in relation to what they assert are ‘existing commitments’ as to ‘rights’ of various sorts.

Some may question whether Sinn Féin want to be in devolved government at all at the moment. There is a range of grievances that their base genuinely feel. But in large measure, this may be on account of Brexit. Brexit is the first development since 1998 with a significant effect on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement which was not agreed by both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It would be extremely uncomfortable for Sinn Féin to be in government, carrying out British rule in Ireland, as hard-line Republicans would put it, while Brexit was being implemented, potentially including barriers of whatever sort (and anything will be an irritant politically) being introduced at the land border within the island.

Northern Ireland views on Brexit appear to have had no impact on the approach in London. A political stand-off against the British government might gain more traction. It may also play well for Sinn Féin politically north and south of the border. But renouncing a role in government in Northern Ireland in favour of British ministers, for an uncertain but perhaps protracted period, is not attractive for them either.

At all events, by today, the main parties in the Assembly elected on 2 March ought by law to have nominated a First and deputy First Minister. They are also scheduled to fill the other ministerial posts in the Executive, and the Assembly Speakership. The Assembly was due to meet at 12 noon for the purpose, and the legal shutters are deemed to come down at 4pm. If the parties do not appoint the FM and DFM by that time their powers disappear and the Secretary of State comes under an obligation to set a date for another Assembly election. There is legal authority that he does not have to do so immediately however, and there is speculation that he might hold off for a while, seeking to reinstate negotiations. He appears likely to make a statement in the Commons tomorrow.

Like his predecessors in similar situations, the Secretary of State has been playing up the prospect of a further election as a threat. In fact that might rather appeal to both of the two big parties, who might hope to pick up seats from smaller ones. But there is no sign that an election would do anything to facilitate political agreement. The arithmetic would not change radically. The campaign would probably intensify the reversion of the political debate in Northern Ireland to the old unionist-nationalist, them and us, stand-off, and away from the era of working together which Martin McGuinness personified.

If there are no Executive appointments, and no elections, some Westminster primary legislation will be needed after today. That might be to permit the selection of an FM and DFM, if there is a late breakthrough; or give more time for negotiation if the prospects radically change. And in those contexts there might be powers to fix aspects of Executive business in the short term, since there are no ministers at present, nor any budget for the new financial year.

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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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