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ANALYSIS: Devolution has returned to Northern Ireland, but for how long?

ANALYSIS: Devolution has returned to Northern Ireland, but for how long?

Andrew McQuillan

4 min read

After three years, and one attempted deal abandoned at a minute to midnight, Northern Ireland now has a devolved government. 

Given the perilous state of public services in the Province – as illustrated by health workers striking but a few miles from Stormont this week – this is on a base level at least a welcome development. That it has taken three years to reach this modest point is testament to the, in parts, obtuse political culture which permeates the place.

A sense of war weariness explains how the local parties, namely the DUP and Sinn Fein, have arrived here. The Westminster commentariat seems to be applauding Julian Smith for almost Mo Mowlamesque statecraft in reaching a deal. It would be churlish to deny that he has achieved something; given his predecessor the only way was up while his ability to convince the minor parties like the SDLP and UUP to endorse the deal is significant in its own way.

However, the minute the exit poll emerged on the evening of December 12th, his job was made much easier. With both the DUP and Sinn Fein suitably chastened by the result and fearful of the impact the election Smith would have been required to call had the talks failed, he was pushing against an open door. To regard this deal as an outpouring of agreement as opposed to political expediency would be misguided.

The practicalities of the deal for both main parties, to paraphrase The Day Today’s Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan, are things that they may not like but will have to go along with anyway. Given that the vexatious issue of Irish language became the defining barrier of the past three years, there was a certain irony that it is what has made both the DUP and Sinn Fein suffer most as a result of their compact.

On the unionist side, while they have avoided a standalone Irish language act, the move towards an Irish language commissioner is a marked departure from Arlene Foster and various DUP figures’ protestations on the issue. For Sinn Fein, the failure to secure that singular piece of legislation is a sore blow. Indeed, the move away from this and their other red line, that devolution could not be restored without the absence of Arlene Foster, demonstrates their need to reach an agreement with the SDLP breathing down their necks. Taken together, the cobbled together solution to the language situation shows Mrs Foster and Michelle O’Neill’s diminished political clout.

Deeper into the deal, there are inherent contradictions. On legacy and historical prosecutions, it seeks to push through the Stormont House proposals detested by Tories like Johnny Mercer while on Brexit it proposes to ensure the unfettered access to the UK market made impossible by the Prime Minister’s agreement with Brussels.

Furthermore, the language in the deal is at best tenuous about how to prevent the sort of situation which led to the collapse of the institutions from happening again. Amorphous references to making the institutions resilient and engendering respect among the parties fails to explain how any party, most likely Sinn Fein, can be stopped from taking the show off the road. It was notable that throughout the process the British and Irish Governments seemed allergic to rebuking the republicans for their abandonment of devolution in 2017 on the pretext of the RHI scandal, as serious as it was.

The negotiations were a further indictment that Ulster’s unionists are very much alone in any political process. The British Government’s lack of “selfish and strategic interest” in Northern Ireland stood in stark comparison to the dogged involvement of the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in the process. His endorsement of an Irish language act was a notable example; already a bête noire to unionists on account of Brexit, what they regard as his overreach into Northern Ireland’s domestic affairs has heightened their pre-existing fears.

With new ministers installed, the Stormont equivalent of normality has returned. Yet even the authors and the signatories of this deal will acknowledge that the foundations contain inherent faults which no amount of commissioners, quangos and warm words will resolve. Devolution is back on an even keel, but for how long remains to be seen.

* Andrew McQuillan works in public affairs and writes extensively on Northern Ireland


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