Thirteen months after the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, talks to restore a devolved government have collapsed. Despite optimism last weekend that a deal was imminent – leading the Prime Minister and Taoiseach to make a spontaneous trip to Belfast – these hopes were dashed when the Democratic Unionist Party’s Arlene Foster bluntly concluded, “there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed.” It’s back to square one.
At the same time, the countdown to the UK’s departure from the European Union continues to tick ever so loudly in the background. What effect will the protracted absence of a government have on Northern Ireland’s voice in the wider Brexit process? Or is Brexit itself partly a cause of the stalemate at Stormont?
Scotland and Wales each have a devolved government, and hence there is a clear channel through which Scottish and Welsh voices can provide some form of input to the UK government.
Neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Carwyn Jones have seats around the negotiating table in Brussels, but they do hold mandates to represent the interests of Scotland and Wales respectively, and this makes their voices worth listening to.
If Northern Ireland did get an Executive back up and running there would, in theory, be a ‘go-to’ voice to represent its interests. Even allowing for the fact that a majority of voters (56%) opted to remain in the European Union, Northern Ireland is in a unique position, and the magnitude of the consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU are highly dependent on the precise nature of this departure.
How will farmers be affected by the ending of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies? Will trade with the Republic of Ireland continue to be as frictionless as it is today? And, highly symbolically, can any ‘hardening’ of the border be avoided? A functioning devolved government could, presumably, lobby for Northern Ireland’s distinct interests in these matters.
In reality, however, it is unlikely that a restored Northern Ireland Executive would speak with any kind of coherent or consistent voice. The two largest parties, both of whom would be required to share power in a cross-community coalition, are simply too heavily divided on Brexit. They both oppose a ‘hard border’, but their positions diverge heavily when it comes to substantive policy demands.
The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest unionist party, campaigned to leave the EU and is insistent that the UK as a whole leaves both the single market and customs union. It says that customs checks at the border can be avoided by cameras and online declarations. Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, argues that Northern Ireland should effectively stay in the EU through some form of ‘special status’ to avoid any visible manifestation of a border on the island of Ireland.
It is somewhat ironic that despite the centrality of Brexit to the broader political discourse across these islands, and despite the potentially acute consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland itself, it has not featured on the core agenda in the talks to restore Northern Ireland’s government. Instead, it is the question of legislation to promote the Irish language that has been the primary sticking point over the last 13 months.
This issue is undoubtedly important to many people, but in the grand scheme of things it is hardly as important to most people as the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, not least given the time-sensitivity of the latter. It’s as if the whole world is talking about the border conundrum and how to square the circle of the commitments made by the UK and EU in December, while the parties in the affected geographical region effectively ignore the biggest issue of the day in their own set of talks.
This may seem a tad bizarre, but, then again, it underscores how naïve it would be to assume that the restoration of a power-sharing administration at Stormont would necessarily make Northern Ireland’s voice on Brexit clearer.
Indeed, one interpretation of recent developments could be that neither the Democratic Unionist Party nor Sinn Féin have a particularly strong interest in restoring devolution in the first place. Some form of direct rule from Westminster is now much more likely, and this outcome may (paradoxically) serve both parties’ strategic goals.
For the Democratic Unionist Party, the current arithmetic in the House of Commons could make direct rule rather appealing. After a remarkable combination of events in the 2017 General Election, the party effectively holds the balance of power at Westminster.
If direct rule ministers took decisions with which the Democratic Unionist Party disagreed, Theresa May’s life might become even more difficult than it already is. The party could withdraw its support for the minority government at any time.
The risk, of course, is that any threat of doing so would not be taken seriously: would the Democratic Unionist Party really rather risk triggering a general election and Jeremy Corbyn walking into 10 Downing Street?
For Sinn Féin, the logic is slightly counter-intuitive. The ideologically republican party does not even take its seats at Westminster, so why would it countenance ministers in London taking decisions previously made at Stormont? Publicly, it says such a scenario would be unacceptable. However, if the party is thinking purely in terms of Irish unity, direct rule may help its pursuit.
By removing the middle-ground constitutional option (devolved power-sharing within the UK) from the menu, it leaves two binary options: direct rule from London, or a united Ireland. With the possibility of a hard Brexit within the next 13 months or so, it is more likely that ‘soft’ nationalists – previously content with the status quo – would opt for Irish unity in any referendum.
This interpretation may be slightly unfair to the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, but given that both parties have had 13 months to re-establish a devolved government, there simply does not appear to be the political will to do so.
Either one party, or both, may calculate that its strategic interests lie elsewhere. Up to now we have thought that the Irish question had entered British politics in big way. Perhaps the reverse is equally true.
Brexit involves significant constitutional flux for the United Kingdom, so it should be no surprise that it influences the strategizing of parties in a place where the constitutional question is already salient.