Talks have been resumed to form a devolved government in Northern Ireland, after over a year of deadlock. British Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and the Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney have been meeting with leaders of the five main parties: Sinn Féin, Social Democratic and Labour Party (both republican), cross-community Alliance, Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (both unionist).
The Northern Irish Executive collapsed January 2017, following then First Minister Arlene Foster’s controversial involvement in the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal, also called Cash for Ash. Without proper controls, the scheme racked up £500 million costs, and members of opposing parties demanded DUP leader Foster stand down during an inquiry. On her refusal, deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness resigned his post. This caused the removal of Foster and the breakdown of the entire government due to the power sharing agreement.
This triggered a snap election in March last year, which was the first vote since the partition of Ireland in which unionist parties did not win a majority of seats. The DUP remained the largest party, with Sinn Féin second with one fewer seat, followed by the SDLP and the UUP.
But what is this power sharing arrangement? In essence, the devolved government is selected by the Northern Irish Assembly – the parliament – with the requirement that both unionists and republicans are given ministerial positions. The positions of First Minister and deputy First Minister are tied together, and must be split between the two sides. Traditionally the leader of the largest party becomes the First Minister, and the leader of the next largest party from the other community (or neutral) becomes the deputy. The seven other positions are appointed with some degree of proportionality – still given to both sides but more or less depending on the outcome of the election.
In addition to this set up, certain votes can be made to require “cross-community support” given enough votes, needing 40% support from both unionist and republican representatives. All of these measures are intended to protect each group and promote inter-community cooperation. Unfortunately, party conflicts can critically complicate matters and make it near impossible to reach a settlement. Since its beginnings in 1998, the Assembly has been suspended four times, the longest being between 2002 and 2007. In these years no formal Northern Irish Executive was formed, and, as stipulated in the Good Friday Agreement, powers reverted to the British government.
Since the collapse of the Assembly last year, the Civil Service has largely been running services, but they are unable to make any real changes, which must come through the Executive. A number of talks have been held in the last 12 months, sometimes facilitated by the British government’s representative, the Northern Irish Secretary, but these have been unable to move past a stalemate. Aside from the lingering conflict over the Cash for Ash meltdown, Sinn Féin have called for an Irish Language Act which has proved a sticking point for the DUP, who are reluctant to pass any legislation solely aimed at the promotion of the Irish language. In addition, they are raising the issue of equal marriage, although whether this is a bargaining chip or something more meaningful is yet to be seen.
There is not as much of an incentive for parties to reach an agreement as might be expected – members of the assembly are still receiving their full parliamentary salary, and even received a £500 raise in April. In the absence of a resolution, NI Secretary Bradley has the power to impose direct British rule. This, however, could further escalate the division. The minority Conservative government rely on votes from the DUP in a confidence and supply arrangement, throwing neutrality out of the window.
Power sharing in Northern Ireland is designed to prevent one community from dominating over another, and to move away from the conflict ridden past. Despite these grand intentions however, in practice the parties remain polarised. The UK Parliament’s position as moderator has also been compromised, complicating the situation still further and making it difficult to see how a resolution can be reached.
[Louise Wylie – @womanpendulum]