Northern Ireland Still Doesn’t Have An Executive, What Happens Now?
Three months after Northern Ireland held its seismic Assembly elections in May, which left nationalist Sinn Fein as the largest party for the first time ever, the struggle to install first and deputy ministers and resume power sharing wages on.
Today marks the second deadline for the Northern Ireland Executive to form, 12 weeks since the first attempt to elect speakers to the Assembly.
Following a third failed attempt on Wednesday, due to the continuous abstention of Stormont Institutions by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over the Protocol, the date is set to elapse without any advance.
Although the deadline can be extended for two more 6-week periods, for now Northern Ireland will enter its sixth month without a fully functioning government.
While this is not an unfamiliar situation for Northern Ireland, the context framing this breakdown is particularly challenging given the acute cost of living crisis.
Why has the Northern Ireland Executive not formed?
Due to the unique power-sharing arrangement instilled in the Good Friday Agreement, Stormont has two equally powerful joint heads of government. The first minister is nominated by the largest party, and the deputy first minister is nominated by the largest party of the alternate community designation. Ultimately, the Executive can only be in place on the basis of cross-community consent. Hence, the resignation of the former DUP first minister, Paul Givan, in February over the Northern Ireland Protocol triggered the premature collapse of the Government ahead of the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections held in May.
The election resulted in a historically significant outcome with Sinn Féin eclipsing the DUP as the largest party, marking the first time since 1998 that a nationalist party has obtained the biggest vote share in Northern Ireland. Due to persisting concerns over the Protocol however, the DUP is refraining from nominating a speaker to the Assembly as well as a deputy first minister to the Executive.
The party argues that the Protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s place, not only in the UK internal market, but in the union itself, demonstrating that fault found with the Protocol extends beyond practical problems. For many unionists this is a constitutional issue.
How is the Northern Ireland Executive currently functioning?
Much of the way the Northern Ireland Executive is currently functioning is due to provisions set out in the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act. The act was passed by Westminster in February this year in an effort to minimise political destabilisation in Northern Ireland following the resignation of former First Minister Paul Givan.
NI Constitutional expert Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast explained to PoliticsHome that under these measures, ministers from the previous Executive remain in their positions and assume a caretaker role. They are only able to continue with business already approved and can only make decisions that fall under the remit of their department exclusively.
Although this prevents complete breakdown, ministers’ ability to adequately address issues facing the people of Northern Ireland is still diminished as many of them, such as the cost-of-living crisis, span departmental briefs. Furthermore, Professor Hayward noted that Ministers are not able to approve a new budget or expend any public funds that were not allocated in the preceding Executive.
This iteration of political turmoil is also unique in that the Assembly - the body wherein ministers meet to debate, represent their constituents, and scrutinise the Executive - is not sitting either. This means that ministers are unable to meet.
What impact has the absence of the Executive had on Northern Ireland?
The wide range of transferred matters outlined in the Northern Irish Devolution settlement has far reaching consequences across many areas when in a state of legislative paralysis.
Economic uncertainty arising from the lack of government cannot be understated, particularly when considering the lack of an approved budget.
Demonstrating the detrimental economic impacts of political dormancy, the Confederation of British Industry estimated that when the Executive collapsed between 2017 and 2022, it cost the NI economy nearly £1 bn.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health also released a plea to MLA’s ahead of the most recent planned recall of the Assembly, imploring them to form an Executive after paediatricians had witnessed families missing health appointments due to travel costs and parents skipping meals to feed their children due to the cost-of-living crisis. The college also cited the pressures on child health services as a direct consequence of political inactivity.
Speaking to PoliticsHome, Stephen Farry MP of the non-aligned Alliance party, echoed these sentiments when asked about the key issues facing his constituents.
“I get far more correspondence on the cost of living crisis and problems in the health sector than I do on the issues of the Protocol, so for people these are the core challenges," he said.
"We really need an executive restored and budgets agreed so that people can be helped.”
What happens if the 5 August deadline is missed?
The deadline to form an Executive can be extended for a maximum of two more 6-week periods, ending on 28 October. By which point, if the Executive has still failed to form, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obligated to hold another election. The election would have to take place within 12 weeks of it being announced.
"The secretary of state's priority is for Northern Ireland's political leaders to restore the full functioning of the devolved institutions as soon as possible” a spokesperson from the Northern Ireland Office told PoliticsHome. The Northern Ireland secretary Shailesh Vara has also stated elsewhere that he is adamant to avoid another election and is willing to take tough decisions, such as cutting MLA pay, to do so.
The UK government has introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill which will allow the UK to take unilateral action to address their concerns surrounding the agreement if enacted. Whilst the DUP have expressed their approval of the bill, Leader Jeffery Donaldson has indicated that his party would need to see the bill achieve real progress in Parliament before it agrees to form an Executive.
Having passed a vote in the House of Commons with a 74 majority despite cross-party criticism, all eyes will now be looking to the Lords when parliament returns from recess on 5 September as the bill is set to begin its Second Reading in the upper house following a tumultuous First Reading.
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