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16 Jan 2020

Devolution and the Union


The restoration of government to Northern Ireland was three painful years in the making. Since the Stormont assembly and executive collapsed in January 2017 over the Democratic Unionist party’s handling of the renewable heat incentive scandal, the country has effectively been run by civil servants facing down a health crisis, the impact of austerity and Brexit-related insecurity.

A resolution was finally found on Friday, in the nick of time to avoid the fresh assembly elections that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, had threatened to call if parties failed to compromise.

It was the experience of December’s general election that focused the attention of the two largest parties.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin lost vote share (down 5.4% and 6.7% respectively) – and both lost symbolically important constituencies.

The DUP leaked votes to the middle-ground Alliance party, and Sinn Féin felt the heat of an unexpected boost to its rival nationalist SDLP (in part aided by anti-Brexit electoral pacts). The parties feared another hammering in assembly elections.

The sudden loss of the DUP’s influence in Westminster caused by the huge Conservative majority forced Northern Ireland’s largest party to shift focus back to Stormont as a place to wield political power.

And an impending general election in the Republic of Ireland gave extra incentive for Sinn Féin to use Stormont to demonstrate its credentials as a respectable partner in government.

In and of itself, the agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments is a notable achievement.

That said, this is a document that is not completely unfamiliar to those who have followed the tortuous stop-start progress of talks over the past few years.

A similar agreement was close to restoring Stormont in February 2018 until it was tripped up by unionist cold feet.

Now the headline-grabbing features come in the form of cash: the magic money tree has blossomed again. Money for healthcare, money to ease school budgets, money to improve infrastructure and the extension of welfare mitigation are among a collection of promises.

Whether this bonus will be spent in such a way that might lead to longer-term fixes depends a lot on the new executive’s programme for government.

Other points of contention that prolonged the Stormont impasse have been smoothed out in a manner that gives the impression of what the academic Duncan Morrow calls the “shared out” society: one for you, one for me.

This is most clearly seen in the fact that unionist sensitivities around an Irish language act have been addressed by having a commissioner for Ulster Scots to work in parallel with one for the Irish language.

Indeed, some of what has been agreed can be read as a type of green/orange bingo, with points clearly added by one “side” or the other – whether it be in relation to citizens’ rights, legacy of the past, or flags and culture.

Somehow, Irish and British diplomats have to come up with a formula that translates these “wins” into the cryptic exchange rate that exists in community relations in Northern Ireland.

Of course, whether they are successful or not depends on if the politicians are willing and able to sell the wins and swallow the compromises. And the tasks to be faced in a new decade present a rather different environment for that process.

This is reflected in what is substantively new in the platform for government.

Consideration of the climate crisis, cybersecurity, civic engagement, citizens’ assemblies, co-production of policy – these are concepts that are hardly radical, but which are fresh enough in Northern Ireland to constitute grounds for meaningful progress.

What happened over the weekend is best understood as the beginning of a new chapter, rather than the end of a sorry saga. What has been agreed so far contains the bare minimum for the journey ahead.

“Never mind the hand of history on my shoulder. I see the hand of the future beckoning us all forward,” said the prime minister, Boris Johnson, in Belfast yesterday.

So far this future is full of nods of acknowledgement rather than signed and sealed guarantees from the British government, especially when it comes to managing the fallout of Brexit.

The return of the assembly and executive is not enough alone to tackle the realities of what this decade will mean for Northern Ireland. But it is an important moment. And people in Northern Ireland – despite collective weariness – are once again defiantly willing to hope that it could succeed.

By Dr Katy Hayward, senior fellow of The UK in a Changing Europe and reader in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. This piece was originally published by the Guardian.


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