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Demonstrating good will on Good Friday will resolve political impasse in Northern Ireland

Demonstrating good will on Good Friday will resolve political impasse in Northern Ireland

Gareth Brown, Associate 

Lots of good things happen at Easter – a fictitious rabbit handing out chocolate, a bank holiday weekend, and for people of faith, a religious holiday with the renewal of old ideals at its core. Also, 19 years ago on Good Friday, a multi-party agreement (known as the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement) was signed in Northern Ireland delivering cross-community political institutions and, more importantly, relative peace.

Once again *exacerbated sigh*, Northern Ireland finds itself at an impasse. The deadline for talks to form an Executive following last month’s election, a timetable underpinned by the Northern Ireland Act, expires on Good Friday and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that there is more chance of the Easter Bunny bouncing up the steps of Stormont than a deal being reached in these timescales.

At this point, I should preface the rest of this article by saying it is intended for a non-Northern Irish audience in the absence of any meaningful national media coverage. For, in my view, the implications for the United Kingdom as a whole of the outcome are potentially profound.

So, why? How did we get here? After all, over 40% of the population in Northern Ireland would be too young to meaningfully remember life before peace and political agreement.

Well, the answer is it’s complicated – understanding it requires an appreciation that although the well documented Renewable Heat Incentive public finance debacle is the reason why the institutions collapsed at the beginning of this year, it is not the underlying cause of the problem.

Understanding the cause requires a more careful examination of what exactly was established 19 years ago, and crucially what was not – all with the benefit of hindsight of course. Making the institutions work, and work meaningfully, required three key ingredients – structures, agency and trust. Only the first has actually been realised.

The first strand of the Good Friday Agreement created the Assembly and the Executive – 18 constituencies electing six (now five) Members of the Legislative Assembly through Single Transferable Vote and a power sharing Executive that legally required both Unionist and Nationalist representation. Consociationalism, the name for the particular structure of Government, means that any political party that can secure sufficient electoral support is entitled to ministerial representation. It is still, in theory, a voluntary coalition (often mistakenly referred to as mandatory coalition) as the parties do not have to accept it, a decision utilised only a few years ago when the Ulster Unionist Party decided to leave the Executive to sit in “opposition”. The UUP were followed to the opposition benches by the SDLP and Alliance following the 2016 Assembly election.

The price for consociational government is high – both in terms of efficient policy making and scrutiny of that policy.

Until recently, all five of the largest parties were part of the Executive which made coherent and effective policy delivery extremely challenging – it has often taken almost the first year of the Assembly session to agree a Programme for Government. Traditionally, only very limited pre-coalition talks have taken place, as there was no imperative for agreement on joint proposals before a government was formed because parties were “entitled” to their place in that government. Furthermore, the same parties tasked with running the government were also tasked with scrutinising it, creating a real blurry line between the Executive and the Legislature uncharacteristic of modern parliamentary democracies.

This in itself was, and is, not the biggest issue. The current structures traditionally have not incentivised collective responsibility at Executive level, and therefore the parties have not had to foster real and meaningful relationships and collaborate across political and community lines. The outcome is a government of reluctant partners – ministers working in silos – with the primary goal of ensuring their political tradition reaps the greatest rewards (logically at the expense of the other).

This leads us to the second core ingredient – agency.

The structures of government are one thing, but fundamentally it is people that operate them. Sadly, although the Good Friday Agreement has been implemented in word, its ethos has not. Political leaders, from all parties, past and present, have been unable to move beyond the needs of their own communities and work together for the good of the whole. In other words, a bit of old fashioned good will has really been wanting.

Of course, the irony of it all is that these positions do not advance the constitutional case for either nationalists or unionists. Irish nationalists, who wish to see the reunification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following partition in 1921, need to persuade unionism that their culture and rights will be welcome and embraced in any new reunified Ireland. Unionism, especially in the wake of Brexit and shifting demographics, needs to persuade those outside of their traditional communities of the benefits of the Union. Neither are behaving in a manner which will comfort the other in the current negotiation process that is underway.

There was no better example of this dynamic than the recent Assembly election, which took place only last month. All parties raised red line after red line in an effort to maximise the vote in their community, with a full understanding that any negotiation on the far side of the election would be almost impossible given the series of mutually exclusive positions across a range of issues including a prospective Irish Language Act, Arlene Foster’s position during the RHI inquiry, equal marriage and legacy issues.

The final, and arguably most important ingredient, is trust. Although there are significant protections built into the structures of government, including a cross community veto mechanism, and proportional representation measures for ministerial positions and committee places, real power sharing requires nationalists and unionists to trust that the other is committed to the process and accepts that, for the time being, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is settled but could change should public opinion demand it.

Even for a younger generation, it is not difficult to see that this is the most difficult ingredient of all. Unionism cannot forgive or forget the role republicans played in the “Troubles”, and nationalism remains bitter about the discrimination against catholics that took place and unionist majority rule at Stormont many decades ago. It is an awful lot of baggage, but as with all of these things, it is a matter of will.

With none of the parties willing to be the “first mover”, it’s very difficult to see how agreement can be reached before the deadline on Friday. What are the options?

The Secretary of State, by law, is required to call another election. As of today, it is clear this is Sinn Fein’s preferred option – a high stakes strategy for them. They appear to have made a judgement that they could improve on last month’s historic result and pip the DUP to be the largest party. Whilst symbolically significant, this would have no material change on the governance arrangements for Northern Ireland (the Office of First and deputy First Minister is a joint office) or its constitutional position. The criteria for change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is very clearly stipulated in the Good Friday Agreement and is at the behest of public opinion which has support for a unity referendum unsatisfactorily low.

Regardless of whether another election produces a different outcome (and for what it’s worth, I don’t think it would), it will still require agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP – regardless of which is the largest party. Many of the same issues that are preventing progress presently will still be there the far side of another election.

In this sense, it is difficult to understand Sinn Fein’s strategy unless said strategy is to be deliberately disruptive. However, the position of Arlene Foster as prospective First Minister in light of her role in the failed RHI scheme remains the card they can, and will, play to dictate the terms of agreement. Of course, the cynic might question whether there are any terms in which they will agree to.

The Secretary of State could change the law, and buy the time and political space for a more comprehensive set of talks to take place, whilst providing local councils with the ability to levy rates to keep public services going (although we’re not far off crisis point here either). This would require a Bill to amend the Northern Ireland Act, but really could only buy a short period of time – perhaps a few months.

The final option is to restore direct rule, the type of administrative devolution that was in place prior. On balance, this will be the least preferred option for the UK Government as it took a very long time to re-establish the institutions following the last suspension.

A key question is whether nationalism in Northern Ireland is starting to lose its stake in devolution. Feeling exasperated with political unionism, and following Brexit, there are certainly senior figures in the nationalist movement who see a United Ireland back on the table. If this is the case, the prospects of agreement are in even more peril.

With another Scottish Independence referendum appearing almost inevitable, this really would be dire state of affairs as far as the UK constitution goes.

Now more than ever, senior political leaders need to channel what has been missing all of these years – the spirit and ethos that was supposed to accompany the Good Friday Agreement. It is simply a matter of demonstrating some old fashioned good will at Easter.