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With the deadline for forming an Executive having arrived and unprecedent strike action taking place, Katy Hayward sets out the crisis in Northern Ireland and the decision facing the UK government.

When a year ago the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton Harris, announced 18 January 2024 as the new deadline for forming an Executive in Northern Ireland, it seemed a fairly safe bet. He had good reason to expect that the UK and EU would come to a deal within weeks over Northern Ireland – as they did with the Windsor Framework – and was hopeful that would be sufficient to see the DUP return to power-sharing.

By extending the emergency legislation to allow Northern Ireland’s civil servants to cover governmental functions in the absence of devolved ministers, the Secretary of State sought to minimise the chance of having to repeat the same course of action. After all, this was the second time he’d extended the deadline to cover for the DUP’s boycott of the Assembly and Executive since the elections in May 2022. That boycott originated in protest at the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, and expanded after the election saw the DUP lose out to Sinn Féin as the largest party.

Nevertheless 18 January 2024 has arrived, and Northern Ireland is not only in need of more emergency legislation but is showing increasing symptoms of acute crisis. The UK government has no wish to see the region receive intensive care, but is apparently at a loss to know how to take it out of A&E. With the worst healthcare provision in the UK, it seems apt to stretch the analogy: Northern Ireland is on a hospital corridor floor holding gauze pads to its wounds while the medical staff are away on the picket line and healthcare executives deny responsibility.

Because the Secretary of State now looks set to stretch that sticking plaster emergency legislation, the only way people have a chance to express their dissatisfaction is on the streets. 18 January 2024 will see unprecedented strike action in Northern Ireland – some 15 public sector unions are on strike, with large scale ramifications. The lack of public transport (and road gritters to make safe the icy roads) and the closure of schools mean that many more will be forced to miss work.

Although the Secretary of State has been laying the responsibility for public service and pay at the feet of the absent locally-elected politicians, anger at the picket lines will inevitably be directed towards him as much as towards the DUP.

Following the most recent of the oft-repeated ‘final, final stages’ of talks between the DUP and Secretary of State in mid-December, the UK government increased its budgetary offer to Northern Ireland’s parties. This included some £600m to meet the public sector pay demands. However, the government has made delivery of this conditional on a functioning Assembly and Executive. The upshot is that a much-needed financial package for Northern Ireland looks much like a bribe to get the party that lost in the Assembly election back into Stormont. But getting the DUP back into power-sharing is one thing – keeping them there is a further challenge.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the House of Commons recently produced a report on the effectiveness of the institutions established under the agreement, setting out reforms to make them less vulnerable to collapse. Notably, the DUP members of the Committee published a minority report arguing, in contrast, that the exercise of a minority veto is not intrinsically problematic but relates to the need to secure ‘parallel consent of unionists and nationalists on an ongoing basis’ in governing the region.

At root, DUP demands to be asked for their ‘consent’ are a quest for more security in an increasingly uncertain context for unionists. This relates both to its protest at the UK-EU Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (which introduced new post-Brexit trading rules and practices between Northern Ireland and Great Britain) and to concerns as to the significance of a nationalist party being the largest in the Assembly.

Indeed that latter point may explain why not only strong unionists (88%) but also a significant portion of softer unionists (37%) disagree that the Assembly should be fully-functioning even now the UK has secured adjustments to the Protocol via the Windsor Framework. The wariness of that cohort of strong, anti-Windsor Framework unionists cannot be ignored. It stands at about 30% of the active electorate, even as Northern Ireland society is becoming less unionist as a whole.

In making a decision about a return to Stormont, the DUP wants to keep as much of that strong unionist support, while recognising that functioning devolution is necessary to keep NI in the Union longer term. The intensity of this conundrum helps explain the reluctance of the DUP leadership to make a decision, or even to accept the Secretary of State’s assertion that their side-talks have come to an end.

So, whether its talks with the DUP have ended or failed, the UK government needs to make a decision. Cushioning a single party from electoral realities and legislative responsibilities does not equate to upholding NI’s place in the Union. If more emergency legislation is resorted to, it should surely do more for Northern Ireland than postpone Assembly elections again. The government has acknowledged the ‘range of pressing issues’ that need to be addressed and it has prepared a good financial package to facilitate that. Allowing much-needed treatment to be given would not be a sign of weakness but an act of a responsible government.

By Katy Hayward, Professor of Political Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast.

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