Colin Murray argues that the governance situation in Northern Ireland is profoundly stuck, with ongoing implications for public services and the people of Northern Ireland and little to suggest there will be a resolution in the autumn.
Since late 2022, all of Northern Ireland’s government departments have been managed by civil servants without any ministerial leadership, under increasingly restricted budget allocations imposed by Westminster. This should be decried as a constitutional aberration, but has become strangely acceptable for Northern Ireland.
The power-sharing arrangements established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 are easy to disrupt. The largest party in either the Nationalist or Unionist bloc in the Stormont Assembly can upend devolution by refusing to participate in governing, something which has happened multiple times in the 25 years since the Agreement.
When this happens, the Agreement’s arrangements allow for direct rule from Westminster and Whitehall, with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland responsible for day-to-day governance decisions. In such circumstances, however, the Irish government would need to be consulted on Northern Ireland’s governance.
But these requirements are currently being avoided as the UK government maintains that the current state of quasi devolution is temporary, when it is in fact unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
The current standoff was triggered by Brexit’s upheavals. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) abandoned power sharing in February 2022, in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol’s arrangements which differentiate Northern Ireland from Great Britain. They remain unconvinced that the Windsor Framework’s reforms, agreed in February 2023, make sufficient changes to these arrangements. As the DUP complain from the sidelines, however, the Windsor Framework continues to take shape, bypassing their stand against it.
Brussels and London appear committed, for now at least, to not letting their post-Brexit relationship be defined by Northern Ireland. In recent weeks, the UK government has put in place the latest round of statutory instruments implementing the Windsor Framework. This means there is no foreseeable reopening of the deal, and no obvious outlet for the DUP’s efforts to extract further concessions over its terms. This apparent dead end for the DUP campaign has generated hopes that power sharing might be restored in the autumn. Those hopes, however, increasingly look misplaced.
Brexit was always going to bring with it new barriers to trade, but up to now it has been very difficult to measure the impact of Northern Ireland’s different arrangements. Although the Protocol was only ever partially implemented, the trade disruptions across the Irish Sea stood out because post-Brexit controls on animal and plant products entering Great Britain have not been implemented. It is impossible to get a full understanding of the Protocol’s benefits for Northern Ireland, balanced against the issues it is causing, when these goods continue to flow freely from the EU into all parts of the UK.
Additional border controls were to come into place in Great Britain in the autumn, alongside many of the Windsor Framework changes, bringing with it a potential moment for reassessment of positions on the Protocol. These new barriers to these goods from the EU, which Northern Ireland will not face, will, however, inevitably bring with them increased costs. Reports indicate that the UK government will again delay the implementation of these border controls as it grapples with food price inflation. Important benefits of the Protocol, in terms of Northern Ireland continuing to enjoy unimpeded flows of EU goods, continue to be occluded.
This means that the DUP are unlikely to come under pressure from their voters to change position. Indeed, even if the Protocol’s benefits become more apparent, having maintained that the Brexit deal poses an existential threat to Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, the DUP have little room to pivot and return to power sharing.
It has been claimed that the DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, faces a ‘Trimble Moment’, when, like David Trimble in 1998, he must recognise that acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland might well split his party, with the added spice that he was one of the politicians who abandoned Trimble over the 1998 Agreement.
In reality, however, the two moments are very different. Trimble felt the acute pressure of decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. Twenty-five years on, Donaldson does not perceive the same danger of a collapse back into widespread violence, no matter how divided society remains. The success of the peace process enables political stagnation; without the present threat of political violence concentrating minds, there is little pressure on the DUP’s leadership to look beyond its core constituency.
This is the backdrop to the deep budget cuts currently being imposed by the UK government in Northern Ireland (without the degree of oversight and consultation which would come with direct rule). A divided and post-conflict society inevitably brings with it additional costs, which ministers have scarcely acknowledged in the sudden zeal to constrain public spending in Northern Ireland. And yet, the Secretary of State maintains that these cuts are focused purely on Northern Ireland’s budget deficit, and are not being used as a means to exert pressure upon the DUP.
There is, nonetheless, a logical inconsistency in Chris Heaton-Harris’s position that the cuts are nothing to do with power sharing, but that more money could be available if Stormont is restored. The carrot and stick are apparent to all. For all his insistence that funding alone ‘will not solve’ the challenges Northern Ireland faces, the sudden lack of funding is undoubtedly exacerbating them.
Indeed, the UK government’s planning has turned to additional avenues for raising revenue within Northern Ireland, from the introduction of distinct water charges to increases in student fees. Rather than ramping up pressure on the DUP boycott, this might well intensify the problem. Many politicians in Northern Ireland would rather complain about the impositions of the Northern Ireland Secretary than be responsible for implementing such changes themselves.
Power sharing is therefore profoundly stuck. There is no shift in the fundamentals of the post-Brexit crisis which warrants optimism of a resolution in the autumn. And even a slightly improved financial settlement will not alleviate hard choices over Northern Ireland’s public services; any new money will undoubtedly come with unattractive strings attached.
In the apparent dog days of the UK’s Conservative government, and with a general election looming in Ireland too, Northern Ireland’s parties could well seek to defer a reset. Grandstanding and drift look set continue, with profound consequences for the people of Northern Ireland.
It is tempting to think of its governance arrangements as being held in stasis by the current arrangements, but every day of cuts and deferred decisions adds to the backlog which must be addressed. From hospital waiting lists, to welfare provisions, to support for Special Educational Needs, this governance crisis falls most heavily the most vulnerable in society. Cuts to programmes to tackle educational underachievement cannot simply be reversed at a later date, they create cohorts of left behind pupils with long-term societal implications.
This should increase pressure for direct rule under the 1998 Agreement’s terms, to increase the accountability for decision making in Northern Ireland. In the longer term, however, even if power-sharing is restored under the current arrangements, there is nothing to suggest that it will be any more stable or effective than it is today. The longer that drift continues, the more discourse will turn towards more radical changes to Northern Ireland’s post-conflict governance order, and even to its constitutional status.
By Colin Murray, Professor of Law and Democracy, Newcastle University.