After a three-year hiatus, devolved government in Northern Ireland is back. The ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA) agreement published by the British and Irish governments on 9 January and endorsed by the Northern Irish political parties on 10 January heralds a new era of power-sharing government at a time of immense importance.
The new Northern Ireland executive faces the unenviable challenge of addressing the “starkly negative” economic impact and “slow decay and stagnation” of public services caused by a prolonged absence of government, while simultaneously getting to grips with the implications of the new Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland contained in the re-negotiated UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement (see this excellent explainer).
Long-awaited in Northern Ireland the effect of a restoration of devolved government in Stormont, under the terms of the NDNA, will also be felt outside its now (in)famous borders.
Its impact will be played out in three political arenas: one internal, one national and one international.
A changing Northern Irish landscape
Since the collapse of devolved government in January 2017 the political topography of Northern Ireland has started to change.
A surge of support for the non-aligned, centrist Alliance Party in all three elections of 2019 (the local, European Parliament and UK general elections) came at the cost of diminished support for the two largest Northern Irish political parties: strongly Unionist DUP and strongly Nationalist Sinn Féin.
An increase in support for non-aligned, centrist candidates, and corresponding decrease in support for harder-line Unionist and Nationalist candidates could be more than just a passing trend.
Opinion polling shows that the percentage of those who identify as either Unionist or Nationalist in Northern Ireland is in steady decline.
If the salience of traditional political identities continues to fall, the allegiance of the Northern Irish electorate is likely to become increasingly responsive to its government’s performance.
In the current context, this matters because the ability of the new devolved government to deliver on the promises of the NDNA are not solely dependent on decisions made in Northern Ireland.
The NDNA promises major investments in public services and infrastructure without much detail about how these will be managed or financed.
The new executive quickly made clear its view that delivery of NDNA investment would be contingent on additional funding commitments of the UK government.
However, when asked at a press conference, Boris Johnson refused to be drawn on the detail of Treasury commitments to pay for aspects of the NDNA, and referred instead to ‘Barnett consequentials’ – meaning changes to money Northern Ireland would have ordinarily expected to receive.
The UK government later clarified its commitment of £2 billion which will include £1 billion of ‘Barnett-based investment’ – with the other £1 billion being allocated to specific priorities with conditions attached.
This plan was immediately and vociferously rejected by the new Finance Minister, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy, who accused the UK government of acting in “bad faith”.
Tensions over the nature and detail of financial commitments made in the NDNA might be the first sign of a new fault line emerging in UK politics between a more united Stormont and a more divided Westminster.
A strained United Kingdom
Several provisions of the NDNA are likely to add more pressure to the already strained relations between UK central government and its devolved administrations.
In committing to provide additional funding to Northern Ireland, the UK government consistently emphasised the “unique circumstances” (NDNA p.12) of Northern Ireland and “unique challenges” facing its public services (NDNA Annex A).
But underlining Northern Irish particularities might not be enough for politicians in Wales and Scotland who are unlikely to look kindly on increased funding for Northern Ireland that is not reciprocated across the regions.
The NDNA also commits to allow Northern Irish representation on the body charged with implementing the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, the UK-EU Joint Committee, and the specific, Specialized Committee, tasked with the oversight of the operation of the Protocol (Annex A: 9).
In addition, the UK government states in the NDNA that it would welcome “close engagement” on Northern Ireland’s priorities in the next phase of negotiations on future UK-EU relations (Annex A: 8).
Given the extent of change required to implement the Protocol, allowing for Northern Irish participation is reasonable.
However, in view of the perception of politicians in Edinburgh and Cardiff that the perspectives of devolved administrations have been side-lined in the Brexit process so far, the exceptional involvement of Northern Irish representatives could be contentious.
UK-EU protocol divisions
From both the UK and EU perspective, the protocol is unprecedented.
It involves innovative law that has already been queried by other WTO members – meaning close attention will be paid to its implementation outside the EU27, particularly by countries with whom the UK seeks to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals.
For this reason, divergent interpretations of what exactly the protocol requires are significant.
When asked this week about the implications of the re-negotiated protocol for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Johnson re-stated his claim that there would be no checks on trade going west to east, and minimal checks on trade going from east to west.
Speaking in the European Parliament the following day, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier insisted that the protocol would involve significant checks on goods going west to east.
On the question of checks in this direction, Northern Irish politicians align with the EU’s understanding.
Johnson’s re-negotiated withdrawal deal was vehemently opposed by all political parties in Northern Ireland.
Further, Northern Irish MPs in the House of Commons attempted to amend the Withdrawal Agreement Bill so as to minimise any disruption to trade across the Irish Sea.
Although these efforts failed, if Northern Irish politicians are able to input substantially to the next phase of UK-EU negotiations (as per NDNA Annex A: 8, noted above), their voices may prove crucial and controversial.
Overall, the restoration of power-sharing government is very good news for the people of Northern Ireland.
However, with a mandate to transform public services and restore public confidence in government, while navigating the tricky waters of Brexit in an increasingly polarised political environment, the difficulties facing the new Northern Ireland executive and assembly cannot be understated.
These tasks will not be easy but, for the first time in three years, at least there are politicians who are willing to try.
By Lisa Whitten, a PhD researcher in Politics and Law at Queen’s University Belfast.