With legislation introduced to the Commons on 21 November to extend the time for an Executive to be formed, Clare Rice sets out the developments that have led up to this point. She explains why it has proved so difficult to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, and will continue to, highlighting that the key to resolving the situation has been externalised making the situation particularly intractable.
Northern Ireland finds itself, once again, in a state of political hiatus. With steadfast positions being held, strains in relations between parties and with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), a governance chasm, and uncertainty around a second Assembly election, the dynamics at play are many and complex. There is no easy way in which the situation can be resolved, not least as the key to doing so is now dependent on events and actors beyond Northern Ireland.
As the primary reason the DUP resigned its First Minister from the Executive in February 2022, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is a crucial element in this picture. The move was taken as a means of sending a signal to Westminster of unionist anger at the Protocol, and the need for action to be taken to mitigate its impact in Northern Ireland. This is also the basis of the party’s current refusal to re-enter the power-sharing arrangements.
The previous deadlock, which ran from 2017-2020, was brought to an end with the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA) agreement in January 2020. In terms of governance, it contained a number of provisions aimed at ensuring that any future challenges would not result in the same stalemate arising again.
Legislation for this – the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 – only just passed in time to enable the new provisions to come into play when the First Minister resigned in February. It ensured that departments did not face an overnight loss of ministerial leadership as in 2017; instead, ministers were able to continue in post, albeit in a caretaker capacity. The Assembly also continued to function until the end of the mandate, prioritising the completion of a heavy legislative agenda.
Following the election in May, a countdown of up to 24 weeks was started, at which point the Secretary of State would be legally obliged to call an election to happen within 12 weeks. As the 28 October deadline approached, Chris Heaton-Harris was unequivocal in stating that an election would be called if an Executive was not formed, and 15 December was considered the most likely date.
When 00.01 on 28 October came, and inevitably passed, all attention turned to the Secretary of State. A statement was given confirming that an election would be happening at a date to be later confirmed. Meetings with party representatives reinforced that no desire existed for a second election.
On 9 November, the Secretary of State outlined his plans in the House of Commons to extend the period before an election must be called by another 6 weeks (until 8 December 2022), with the potential for extension by a further 6 weeks (until 19 January 2023) if necessary. This means that an election could still happen at any point until April 2023.
There are two justifications for this approach. First, it gives time and space for discussions between the UK and the EU regarding the Protocol to reach their conclusion. The mood music is positive that agreement will be reached, and it holds the most likely key to unlocking the current impasse.
Secondly, it provides space without an election for Northern Ireland’s parties to process what any changes resulting from the UK-EU talks might mean, and for the parties to then engage in any cross-party talks necessary ahead of a return to power-sharing.
The Secretary of State’s failure to move quickly to offer any clarification on his promised election plans once the deadline passed placed the NIO at the centre of the storm. Amid rumours that the Prime Minister intervened to ensure a December election would not happen, the Secretary of State appeared a much-diminished figure who, along with the NIO, did not seem have a Plan B in place for avoiding an immediate election despite the likelihood that an alternative plan would be needed. This has presented its own challenges in terms of future relationships between the Secretary of State and the parties in working to restore power-sharing.
In the meantime, the Northern Ireland Civil Service holds the decision-making power. However, limitations on what can be done without political direction at the helm of departments mean that a governance void has been created.
The chasm is formed on one side of how far Westminster can and/or would want to intervene, and on the other, with the limits of what civil servants can and/or would be comfortable to do, the possibility of legal intervention and judicial review (as happened during the 2017-2020 collapse) acting as a further discouragement to moving too close to the limits of potential. More issues continue to fall into this abyss the longer the impasse continues.
In the wider context of the on-going cost-of-living crisis, which is only predicted to intensify in the coming months in addition to myriad other pressing matters, this means that even when an Executive is restored, it will be on the back-foot from the outset.
While the Secretary of State’s plans have now been formalised in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill, introduced on 21 November, much ambiguity still remains about what the months ahead might entail, with the only certainty being that parties will remain in election-mode for the foreseeable. This will only further compound the challenge of restoring power-sharing with sustainable working relationships.
Northern Ireland is not new to internal political difficulties, but the novelty of the present situation is that it has been externalised – with the DUP resolute in holding its current position until sufficient changes are secured to the Protocol, the sequencing of events towards a restoration of power-sharing begins beyond Northern Ireland.
There is no reasonable way that these circumstances could have been foreseen (at least to the present extent) in 2020, but that NDNA appears to have fallen at the first hurdle does not give much basis for public confidence that a return to power-sharing will not simply lead to the next crisis. This has further added to calls in some quarters, particularly from the Alliance Party, for institutional reform as a means of preventing such situations arising again in the future.
The more time that passes, the more challenging the task becomes. In any case, the road ahead is far from straightforward, with the current situation set to have considerable ripple effects for some time to come.
By Dr Clare Rice, Research Associate, University of Liverpool.