Could history be about to repeat itself in Northern Ireland?
8 min read
History was made when Sinn Féin won the most seats in a Stormont election for the first time – but with the Northern Ireland Assembly facing stasis and uncertainty, could it now repeat itself? Chaminda Jayanetti reports.
Nearly a quarter of a century on from the historic Good Friday Agreement (GFA), Northern Ireland’s political institutions are malfunctioning. The Stormont Executive spends more time suspended than sitting. The unionist movement is split. Brexit has destabilised the province and while only a minority of its voters are against the Northern Ireland Protocol, the ones who are, are against it a lot.
While the early years of the GFA were plagued by arguments over red button issues, such as policing and decommissioning, the executive managed to meet almost continuously between 2007 and 2016 – a relative highpoint of stability.
“In the decade running up to Brexit, you had quite a lot of stability – you had two successful terms of government,” says Peter McLoughlin of the Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict at Queen’s University Belfast. “So although there is a history of problems with the Agreement, its durability also stands as a testament – it did provide a way of effective democratic government in Northern Ireland for a period. Brexit has totally changed the game.”
Unionists fear the Brexit-induced Northern Ireland Protocol is splitting the province from the rest of Britain, thus weakening the union and fostering a sense – among both unionists and nationalists – that the future now arcs towards Irish reunification. But Conor Kelly of University College London’s Constitution Unit says the latest impasse is the result of a confluence of multiple trends.
The current collapse is directly related to the DUP wanting leverage over the protocol situation.
“The current collapse is directly related to the DUP wanting leverage over the protocol situation,” he says, “but I don’t think it can be divorced from the other factors that are burning away in the background around the legacy of the Troubles, culture, identity, the wider Brexit picture.”
The breakdown in power-sharing began in January 2017, when Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness quit as deputy first minister, bringing down power-sharing in the process. The trigger was the so-called “cash for ash” row, in which a badly-run renewable heat subsidy sparked a political storm.
Sinn Féin had been implicated in the fiasco as well as the DUP. “One of their motivations for wrecking that administration was they simply couldn’t take the political heat of being seen to be complicit with the DUP,” says Slugger O’Toole’s Mick Fealty, a veteran observer of Northern Irish politics. “So they walked away from them and said ‘it’s all their fault’.” This, in turn, left the DUP feeling scapegoated.
Fealty highlights this as an effect of a structural flaw of the Stormont Assembly: mandatory coalitions. Under the system used in Northern Ireland, the main parties are virtually guaranteed a place not just in the assembly but in the ruling executive, as long as their vote doesn’t completely evaporate.
“I would really clearly identify mandatory coalition as one of the reasons why the whole institution has become so unstable,” he says. “If you think about tightening the suspension on your car so tightly that you feel every bump in the road – that for me is a fair analogy for what it feels like trying to run this thing.
“I’m not being critical of the political parties here – I think it’s a real fault within the structure.”
As a result, a row like cash for ash had an outsize political impact. “There being no flexible means for people being able to change their collective mind in Northern Ireland, that meant that this rigid arrangement just broke as soon as it was exposed to political controversy.”
The way electoral politics works on either side in Northern Ireland makes it difficult for anyone to credibly say that voting for them could oust another party from office.
“There’s just no cleansing mechanism for bad government or poor performance in a ministerial post,” says Fealty.
“And this creates a kind of a claggy, viscous political atmosphere around the institutions.”
I would really clearly identify mandatory coalition as one of the reasons why the whole institution has become so unstable.
Northern Ireland is now heading for up to 24 weeks of negotiations and potential stalemate – possibly longer, if Westminster passes legislation to extend it. If no deal can be reached to restore power-sharing, new elections will have to be called.
Agreement may require concessions such as Irish language legislation and the renaming of the first minister and deputy first minister roles to reflect that they are, in practice, on a more or less equal footing.
But the big question remains Brexit. The DUP, which lost a quarter of its vote share at the election, but only three of its 28 seats, is demanding the Northern Ireland Protocol be scrapped – one of its manifesto pledges at the election, but unacceptable to the European Union, Dublin and Sinn Féin.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum, McGuinness and then-first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster signed a joint letter setting out what Northern Ireland needed from the process.
“There was potentially a kind of a joint platform there. But what happened was [cash for ash] broke,” recalls Fealty.
As a result, Northern Ireland had no proper representation in the Brexit process. Instead, the pro-Brexit DUP supped with the Conservatives using a very short spoon, only to find that spoon unceremoniously rammed up its nose.
“I guess [the DUP’s] hope is that they will put pressure on the British government to extract concessions from the European Union, that the political instability would also encourage the European Union and the Republic of Ireland to be amenable to a reformed or a renegotiated protocol,” says Kelly.
Options do exist – perhaps reducing the amount of checks in the Irish Sea, or reaching an agreement with the EU around animal health standards – but it’s not at all clear if there is the mutual trust necessary for compromise, nor whether the DUP and the British government are serious about compromise.
“I don’t think you can divorce what the British government has been doing around the Protocol, around Brexit, around threatening to break international law in ‘specific and limited ways’ – all of that feeds into the political rancour,” Kelly adds.
Clear steps towards reunification aren’t coming any time soon.
Following Sinn Féin’s election win there was much excited talk of reunification and border polls. While Sinn Féin didn’t focus its campaigning on unity, nor did its manifesto shy away from it – in a section titled “Planning for Unity”, the party listed among its priorities securing a reunification referendum date from the Irish and British governments.
Clear steps towards reunification aren’t coming any time soon. Under the GFA, the UK government’s Northern Ireland secretary should call a referendum “if at any time it appears likely to him[sic] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” Even after Sinn Féin’s victory, there are more unionist MLAs at Stormont than nationalist ones. And polls consistently show a majority would reject reunification.
Northern Ireland’s Catholic population is growing faster than its Protestant one – but its non-aligned population is swelling too. Fealty expects the latest census to show one in five people don’t identify with either label.
“We’re moving towards a more stable situation – not the 50 per cent plus one scenario that would trigger a border poll or a political referendum,” he says. “And perhaps out of that stability we will get some more focus on things that actually matter to this new demographic.”
We have lived with dysfunction for most of the last 100 years. What’s another 20?
Over time Stormont may replace mandatory coalitions with a mooted new system, requiring the executive to include 60 per cent of MLAs – too high to be drawn from just one community, but creating a more flexible and accountable political dynamic with identifiable governing and opposition parties.
“You’d be surprised the amount of young people as well who say, look, the Good Friday Agreement doesn’t work,” says McLoughlin. “We’ve seen issues that matter to young people, like the environment, women’s rights, LGBT rights, they’ve become enmeshed in the green and orange politics here. They’re not green and orange issues. But they’ve been held up. They’ve been vetoed.” But he accepts this is the voice of a generation that did not experience what came before.
“The peace process that was lauded in 1998 has succeeded. The political process hasn’t. But put that against the fact that for the 50 years before 1968 we didn’t have anything you would say was a successful democratic operation,” says Fealty.
“We have lived with dysfunction for most of the last 100 years. What’s another 20? It’s part of the condition of life in Northern Ireland that you are born into this almost irresolvable political landscape.”
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