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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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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Green shoots for the Union? The joint review of intergovernmental relations

A review of intergovernmental relations conducted jointly by the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was published last week. Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon argue that the most important question facing the proposed new model for intergovernmental relations will be whether an enhanced system for bringing these governments into partnership will be endowed with real respect, and be allowed to take root, by the politicians at the helm.

The territorial chasm that opened beneath the Conservative Party’s feet following the demand made by Douglas Ross, its Scottish leader, that Boris Johnson resign, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s retaliatory dismissal of him as ‘not a big figure’, shone an unflattering spotlight on some of the sharp tensions that devolution has created within the UK’s political parties.  

A much deeper divide has opened up in recent years between the UK government and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Tensions that have been simmering since the election of administrations headed by different parties across the UK over a decade ago were exacerbated during the extended Brexit crisis, and since then more salt has been rubbed on these wounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. First Ministers Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been incentivised to make much of often minor differences in their approach from that adopted by the Johnson government. And yet there has been an abiding need for them and Whitehall to work together in the face of an airborne virus that does not respect the authority of internal borders.

While addressing the sharp differences that have emerged within the Conservative party looks difficult so long as Johnson remains in power, there is at least some cause for optimism that more functional arrangements for co-operation and engagement between the four governments within the UK are being put in place.

This arises specifically from the publication of the report of a long-running joint review which has been conducted by government officials from all parts of the UK. Landing amid the ‘partygate’ crisis engulfing Boris Johnson’s government, it has been largely ignored by the media and politicians at Westminster. But its content, and the thinking animating it, could prove to be an important factor in the future evolution and viability of the UK Union.

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Scotland’s place in the Union will not be decided in the courts: only politicians can enable or prevent independence

Whether or not Scotland can legally hold a referendum without the consent of Westminster is a question that has provoked much debate. Ciaran Martin argues that the answer to this question does not really matter: regardless of the legality of any referendum, it is unrealistic to think that Scotland will leave the Union without the consent of Westminster. This makes the key question a political one, which the courts cannot resolve.

In mid-August I spoke at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about Scotland and the future of the United Kingdom. My theme was that when the constitutional debate resumes (which it will) after the post-Holyrood election lull, there could, and in my view should, be a debate not just on what independence means, but on what remaining in the Union means. This is a fundamentally different proposition than it was in 2014, and not just because of Brexit.

In 2014, the three UK-wide unionist parties (which, let’s not forget, at the time held 53 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats between them) were all evidently comfortable with devolution. Both the UK government and the broader Better Together campaign spoke of ‘the best of both worlds’ of an autonomous Scotland within a devolved UK. As the polls tightened, the response was ‘the vow’ of more devolution.

Things are different this time. In July, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, leader of the most successful unionist party in any of the devolved territories, warned of ‘a Government that is instinctively hostile’ for the first time in the history of devolution. Sometimes such hostility is just blurted out; sometimes it becomes law, such as the constitutional land grab that is the Internal Market Act. Combined with the unworkability of fully federal models in the UK, this instability within the Union means that when Scotland is debating its constitutional future, the nature of the Union it’s being invited to stay in merits more discussion than last time.

Insofar as I thought any of my arguments would attract attention, it was this one. But instead, coverage emphasised a throwaway restatement of my long-articulated view that the Scottish government is likely (though I did not say certain) to lose any legal case brought against referendum legislation it seeks to pass in Holyrood in the absence of a Section 30 power agreed with Westminster.

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