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14 Oct 2019

Devolution and the Union


Northern Ireland has now been without a government for 1,000 days.

How long it will be before a new Northern Ireland Executive is established and the Northern Ireland Assembly convenes again is anybody’s guess.

The prospects of a return to evolved government wax and wane.

The absence of an Executive and Assembly since January 2017 has meant that major legislative and policy decisions have not been taken for almost three years.

Northern Ireland has also not had the opportunity through its devolved institutions to debate the myriad issues thrown up by the prospect of Brexit and at least seek to establish a cross-party position on how these should be addressed.

With no ministers in place Northern Ireland has also lacked representative political voice beyond the ten DUP MPs and one independent unionist MP in Westminster.

Senior civil servants have attended meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee in its various formations as the UK government has superficially consulted the devolved administrations on the withdrawal negotiations and future relations with the EU, but without ministers Northern Ireland’s voice has essentially been muted.

The absence of an Executive has also meant there have been no meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC).

North-south cooperation on the island of Ireland has therefore been starved of political initiative; and without NSMC meetings, opportunities have been missed for regular, structured engagement on Brexit issues with Irish ministers and officials.

Informal dialogue has occurred, but in public, megaphone diplomacy has been the default, at least for some.

Had an Executive been in place and the Assembly been functioning during the last 1,000-plus days, Northern Ireland would at least have had formal local structures within which elected representatives could have promoted deeper understanding of, and debated, Brexit.

It is by no means clear, however, that they would have energetically engaged or made any progress in building on the constructive joint letter of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in August 2016 setting out their initial priorities for Northern Ireland regarding Brexit.

A striking feature of the seven months between the EU referendum in June 2016 and the collapse of the Executive in January 2017 was the limited Assembly and Executive time given to Brexit issues.

Unlike their counterparts in Scotland and Wales, no Assembly committee launched an inquiry into the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland.

Nor did the Executive commission reports.

Whenever the House of Commons Library produced its update on what was happening on Brexit in the devolved legislatures, it has only ever been able to report from Northern Ireland that: “There are no Committee inquiries on Brexit to date”.

Evidence sessions were few are far between.

The only debate of note was on whether the ‘special status’ of Northern Ireland should be recognized in the withdrawal process.

The motion was narrowly defeated.

A return of the Executive and Assembly is needed.

This is not simply to redress the absence of voice and debate, but because, deal or no deal, the implications of withdrawal need to be managed, and locally.

The civil servants who effectively run Northern Ireland do not have the powers or legitimacy to take major decisions.

If a return to direct rule – which would be a further body blow to the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement – is to be averted, the restoration of devolved government is needed.

A new Executive will also play an important role in ensuring Northern Ireland’s interests on the future UK-EU relations are fully defined and effectively fed into the negotiating priorities of the UK.

It also needs to communicate them to the EU, and ensure, in the spirit of ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ that has underpinned the negotiations for a withdrawal agreement, that the UK and EU accommodate them wherever possible.

Here it needs to be remembered that the backstop is a sub-optimal solution to the challenges that Brexit challenges.

The fact, for example, that the free movement of services is not included rather undermines the claim that the backstop meets the commitment to support the all-island economy.

More importantly, the Executive and Assembly will have roles in implementing NI-specific arrangements that flow from any Withdrawal Agreement.

These will involve a range of backstop provisions, including regulatory alignment covering customs, the free movement of goods, animal health and food safety, citizens’ rights, the single electricity market and other areas of north-south cooperation.

UK-EU relations with respect to Northern Ireland will require considerable input from Northern Ireland if the backstop arrangements are to gain broader popular acceptance than now.

For the input to be maximized, the Executive and Assembly need to be in place. Indeed, the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is predicated on the assumption that the ‘institutions created by the 1998 Agreement’ are functioning.

The same applies to the UK government’s existing commitments Northern Ireland on consulting the Assembly over the transition period and changes to the Protocol and on involving members of the Executive as relevant in meetings of the UK-EU Joint Committee and the Specialised Committee and Joint Consultative Working Group provided for in the Protocol.

Also, the Assembly and Executive need to be making the case for more enhanced involvement of ‘the institutions created by the 1998 Agreement’ in implementing the Protocol.

Consultation of the Assembly over the review of the Protocol could be made mandatory and extended to other issues; the role of the NSMC – which requires the Executive to be in existence – needs to be developed, something in which even the DUP has indicated an interest.

And the Assembly could insist on a greater scrutiny role.

Brexit is a highly divisive issue and raises many challenges.

Deal or no deal, political leadership and a capacity and preparedness to take difficult decisions are vitally important for Northern Ireland as the UK enters the next phase of the process.

The absence of an Assembly and an Executive for more than a 1,000 days means countless opportunities have been missed to inform and shape debate and influence the direction of Brexit.

Northern Ireland and devolution really cannot afford to be without the Assembly and Executive.

By David Phinnemore, professor of European politics, Queen’s University Belfast.


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