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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Northern Ireland: What Einstein would have said

The latest crisis in Northern Ireland looks like yet another déjà vu. It’s not that the situation never changes but the remedy offered by London remains stubbornly the same, writes Robin Wilson.

Events in recent weeks in Northern Ireland, including a feud in the IRA in Belfast and tottering power-sharing institutions at Stormont, have highlighted once more that, far from being a ‘post-conflict’ society with an ‘historic’ peace agreement, it remains a region in pre-post-conflict mode where history isn’t over just yet.

This is not, however, due to the ‘ancient hatreds’ often projected on to this complex canvas by the simplifying gaze of superficial observers. As the all-too-similarly dysfunctional nature of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon demonstrates, it is the consistent application of stereotyping perspectives by representatives of the ‘international community’—the most powerful states with a regional investment—which is the real problem. In all three related agreements—Belfast (1998), Dayton (1995) and Taif (1989)—it has led to the same outcome.

The first step is a conceptual hoovering up of the unique individual diversity of the populace into communal tribes—Protestants and Catholics; Serbs, Croats and ‘Bosniaks’; Maronites, Sunni and Shia Muslims. This fails to recognise the fundamental difficulty that, as the late Italian political scientist Norberto Bobbio pointed out, every democratic constitution is based on the individual citizen. The inevitable victim of this Realpolitik is universal norms: every human rights convention, including those enshrining minority rights, requires the individual to be the rights-bearer; and the rule of law is meaningless unless state institutions are impartial among diverse citizens.

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