A Year of Stalemate in Northern Ireland’s Government: The Specter of Direct Rule By Paul Adams
While the United States has gone through a bout of partisan finger pointing over the sources and consequences of possible government shutdowns, Northern Ireland passed an inglorious anniversary earlier this year as it went for a full year without a functioning governing executive. While Northern Ireland is not yet close to hitting the Belgian record, it is not an auspicious time for deadlock and lack of leadership given the many demanding issues facing Northern Ireland. In fact, the Northern Irish case is far more troubling as there is no true caretaker government as in the Belgian case.
The most obvious issue facing Northern Ireland is Brexit, which has significant implications for not only the economy of the country but perhaps the entire future of the power-sharing arrangement developed as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. While the future of Northern Ireland and Brexit are complexly intertwined, perhaps the largest consequence of the stalemate would be the possibility of re-imposing direct rule from London – which is by far the least preferred outcome for not only Northern Ireland and its prospects of continuing peace and reconciliation but also for the British government which has little wish to reassert rule over the region to which it began devolving power twenty years ago.
Ultimately, the need to reestablish the power-sharing executive in Stormont is critical, yet there seems to be little alacrity to do so and willingness to compromise between the divided parties of Northern Ireland seems in short supply.
The stalemate began in late 2016 with the dominant parties in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangement, the protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and catholic-nationalist Sinn Féin at odds over a variety of issues. Two major issues brought the two parties into increasing contention that were unable to be resolved.
First, Sinn Féin’s efforts to introduce Irish as an official second national language of Northern Ireland including a significant increase in funding of Irish-language instruction were blunted by the DUP. The adoption of an Irish Language Act has been on the Sinn Féin agenda for several years but has been blocked by the DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Irish language is a touchstone issue for Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, hence funding and continued support of the Irish language was one of the most sensitive in the Sinn Fein program even if it has often been traded away for compromises in the past.
Secondly, Sinn Féin has accused the DUP, and specifically their leader Arlene Foster, of being at the center of an expensive green-energy transition scheme that funneled millions of pounds to users that were linked to the DUP leadership. This scandal, known as the “Cash for Ash” scheme, is one that Sinn Féin has used to paint both the DUP in general and Foster specifically as corrupt. Sinn Féin has even argued that Foster must go if they are to return to the power sharing government. In recent elections, Sinn Féin has increasingly focused on fighting corruption and has linked the DUP with scandals and fiscal malfeasance such as Cash for Ash.
The power-sharing arrangement for the executive in Northern Ireland was developed as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought relative peace to Northern Ireland and is usually identified as the event that ended the Troubles, the violent period of unrest and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland that grew from the late 1960s onward. The power-sharing arrangement requires that the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland share power in the executive and that all decisions must be collectively agreed upon between the two largest parties representing these groups.
The agreement did not regularly go into effect until 2007 when the last holdout party, the DUP, finally agreed to participate. Between 1998 and 2007 periods of devolved rule at Stormont were punctuated by periods of direct rule being reasserted from London most notably from 2002 until 2007. Since that time, through serious travails and near crises, the power-sharing arrangement has held up.
But there have been substantial changes since 2007. The DUP and Sinn Féin, once considered the more radical parties competing for votes and power with more moderate parties such as the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), have now become the two most dominant parties in Northern Ireland.
After the dissolution of government last January, new regional elections were held on March 2, 2017 and the results reinforced this trend. Sinn Féin came remarkably close to overtaking the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland, falling only 1,168 votes short of becoming the largest party in the country. Only three months later, British parliamentary elections of June 2017 increased their vote shares in Westminster and pushed the UUP and SDLP out of the national legislature for the first time since before the Troubles.
The stalemate has continued and looks unlikely to be easily addressed. The DUP has increased its influence and prestige by providing the votes of support for Theresa May’s minority government in London and hence has increased its capacity in London and Northern Ireland. But it also sent shock waves through the nationalist communities in Northern Ireland that extended to the Republic of Ireland in the south.
The possibility of imposing direct rule from London is perhaps the most notable and troubling consequence of this stalemate. In November 2017, the British Government and Northern Ireland Secretary proposed a budget for the region, the first step in re-imposing direct rule. However, direct rule is a last resort of the British government and one it would like to avoid at almost all costs. However, as DUP leader Arlene Foster called for the possibility for the imposition of direct rule, it will be difficult for the May government to ignore such pleas for long.
Since the disastrous elections of June 2017, May has relied upon the DUP delegation at Westminster for support of her minority Tory government. If pushed, May would likely have to relent to DUP pressure to reassert direct rule otherwise she would potentially be unable to survive a vote of confidence in Parliament. The DUP already flexed its political muscles in December when it blocked a concession in May’s Brexit negotiations with the EU on a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Direct rule would fundamentally set back the governing and power-sharing system. While Northern Ireland remained under direct rule for much of the era between 2002 and 2007, the last decade has seen relative stability in the shared executive. That relative stability has changed however as the DUP and Sinn Féin have become the two most dominant parties in Northern Ireland and compromise has been harder to obtain. The selection of Arlene Foster as DUP leader seems to have galvanized Sinn Féin opposition to the DUP at levels that did not exist under previous DUP leaders.
Sinn Féin has also undergone two significant leadership changes as well. Martin McGuinness, the former Deputy First Minister whose resignation sparked the collapse of the government in early 2017, passed away in March and leadership of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly passed to Michelle O’Neill. Gerry Adams, the long-time leader of Sinn Féin in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, announced he would resign from leadership effective February 10, 2018. Mary Lou McDonald will to take over party leadership at that time.
One of the more interesting elements of these changes is not only the generational turnover but also the inclusion of women as key leaders of both parties in Northern Ireland. Whether this will mean a better likelihood of reaching a compromise to restore the power-sharing government is yet to be seen. Foster’s call for imposition of direct rule in early January further antagonized the situation. Foster herself, seems to be a major hurdle to possible compromise but one in which the DUP will be unlikely to give in on. Negotiations between Sinn Féin and the DUP resumed in January and recent talks provide some evidence that a deal is could be inthe works, but the news is mixed at best. While Northern Ireland is still not yet Belgium, passing that landmark would be a signal of an even lengthier political crisis in Belfast, and consequently London, at a time of already imposing decisions related to Brexit and the future of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Paul S. Adams, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and an Affiliated Faculty Member of the European Studies Center and Jean Monnet European Union Center of Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh.