By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
Cynics would argue that if a political entity can survive for three years without a government, as was the case of Northern Ireland, it probably doesn’t need one. Well, that is correct to a degree, especially in the special circumstances of a semi-autonomous province that is part of the UK and has special relations with its only immediate neighbor, the Republic of Ireland.
When the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, which were established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, collapsed in January 2017 as a result of a crisis caused by a rift between the two biggest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, over a green energy plan scandal, no one expected the situation to last as long as it did. As time went by, old differences and feuds fueled this crisis regardless of its original cause, which several rounds of negotiations failed to solve. However, this month, Stormont — Northern Ireland’s Assembly — resumed its role after the DUP, which mostly represents unionist Protestants, and the Irish republican party Sinn Fein agreed to a London and Dublin-brokered deal to return to power sharing in the province.
This leaves us with two questions. Why has the Stormont crisis come to an agreed solution at this moment in time? And, even more importantly, will it last? The timing of the agreement has a threefold possible explanation, which involves malaise among the people of Northern Ireland, who haven’t had a functioning government for almost the full life of the current assembly; pressure from London and Dublin; and the looming Brexit.
Any one of those three factors would have been a strong enough incentive for the resumption of the self-rule institutions, but they are also strongly correlated. Both major parties were encouraged to return to power sharing by being “reminded” by the British government that their only other option was to call an election if no deal was reached by Jan. 13, as required by law. But neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein wanted a fresh election. For two years following the 2017 British general election, the DUP was in a position of influence, as Theresa May’s government would have had no parliamentary majority without its support. But, with Boris Johnson throwing the Unionists under the Brexit bus, and especially after the Conservative Party’s general election victory, they are much weakened and have very little to show to their supporters. It is also not a good time for Sinn Fein to face the electorate as, together with the DUP, it is seen as putting sectarian interests above those of the entire population. In line with the mood in other parts of the world, especially among the younger generation, that parochial approach is not finding popular support: Leaders are expected to rise above it.
For the British and Irish governments, in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 31 Brexit deadline, and until negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU are finalized, the Irish border will remain a major issue of contention. It encapsulates the heart of the discord between unionists and republicans and, in the absence of some kind of modus operandi in Stormont, things might have become even more difficult. The combination of the Johnson Brexit deal, which for all intents and purposes treats the province differently to the rest of the UK; the growing inclination among Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people to unite the island as one political entity; and the years to come of translating Brexit into a properly functioning reality, cannot be served by a political vacuum in Belfast. There is currently a slight majority in Northern Ireland for unification, while the opinion polls in England express either support for unification or a wish to leave it to those who live across the Irish Sea to decide their future. At least for the time being, not fully confronting this issue at this point has served as an incentive and catalyst to resolve the Stormont crisis.
Furthermore, for three years Northern Ireland has been run by civil servants and, with all due respect to their intentions and competence, at such a critical time for the place itself and its relations with the UK, Ireland and the EU, this was unsatisfactory. Civil servants are not accountable to the public and consequently their decision-making remit and scope is restricted; hence many crucial issues have been stalled or neglected.
Reconvening the province’s regional parliament was testimony to the sense of urgency in ushering in a functioning government, whose first task is to protect Northern Ireland’s ailing economy from a hard border in the Irish Sea. The UK economy is slowing down overall but, according to the latest official figures, economic activity in Northern Ireland contracted in the last quarter by 0.1 percent, compared to 5 percent growth south of the border. This has made its politicians more susceptive to political compromise in exchange for economic incentives.
The resumption of the partnership — in which Assembly members have elected DUP leader Arlene Foster as first minister and Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill as her deputy — is a marriage of convenience that will have to be nourished and nurtured with a considerable amount of funds from Westminster. It will take more than the £2 billion ($2.6 billion) economic package promised to Northern Ireland in return for resuming power sharing to kick-start the economy there. The bill to resolve a nurses’ pay dispute alone will cost £200 million, while lifting the economy out of its current situation of austerity will need more funds, a stable and competent government, and radical structural changes.
Resuming power sharing is an important step in the right direction toward marginalizing those in Northern Ireland who have never been interested in ending the conflict there and who have a vested interest in restarting it. It is also crucial to deal with the economic challenges, including those stemming from Brexit, which could otherwise play into the hands of the maximalists in both communities. However, without a full commitment by the major political players to putting cooperation above playing to the sectarian gallery, there lies a danger of harming the Good Friday Agreement and, with it, the future of Northern Ireland and a collapse of the power-sharing mechanism once again.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg