31 January 2024

Power-sharing is returning to Stormont, but that’s no guarantee of stability


In an atmosphere of political theatre, or perhaps high farce, the DUP’s executive decided to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland during the early hours of Tuesday morning. Its ‘secret venue’, the Larchfield Estate near Lisburn, was chosen specifically for its secure location, but, from early evening, protesters gathered outside the gates to urge delegates to resist ‘selling out’ Ulster unionism.

After a day of mystery and subterfuge, the meeting’s location had leaked as soon as it was revealed to party members. Then, as the DUP went into solemn conclave, the anti-protocol campaigner, Jamie Bryson, started to live-tweet proceedings as they happened.

His piquant commentary included posts like, ‘DUP meeting descends into mayhem. JD (Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – the party’s leader) saying texts being sent to Jamie Bryson who is giving a blow by blow account.’ And ‘Party chairman keeps sporadically shouting ‘PHONES OFF’.’

After this knockabout, Donaldson emerged at 1am and told reporters that his executive had in fact endorsed the government’s proposed deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework. This agreement, which was published today under the title Safeguarding the Union, is unlikely to justify Sir Jeffrey’s claim that it removes the Irish Sea border.

The government has said that the deal does not change the UK’s relationship with the EU, constrain its freedom to diverge from Brussels’ rules or alter the Windsor Framework legally. It’s hard to reconcile that version with Donaldson’s view that goods can again move to the province without checks or paperwork and Northern Ireland will not be bound by new EU laws.

Over the coming days, the truth will emerge as lawyers and trade experts examine the legal texts published by the government. We know, though, that the EU, like the UK, believes that the framework has not been changed.

The DUP seems to have gained some comforting laws about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. In addition, the so-called ‘green lane’, which in theory provided a smoother route for GB goods coming into Northern Ireland, will become the ‘UK Internal Market System’ and offer further easements to checks and paperwork. And a law, the scale and significance of which is already being disputed, is intended to tackle the problem of regulatory divergence between NI and the rest of the UK.

Before the deal, there were predictions that it could split the DUP, but it is not yet clear whether members of its officer team will oppose the document publicly. That, though, is only one of the potential problems that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson now faces.

The deal means that Northern Ireland’s dysfunctional Assembly and power-sharing executive is set to return. While previous iterations of Stormont were ill-tempered, unproductive and prone to collapse, the new administration may reach a historic low.

The biggest party in the Assembly is now, of course, Sinn Fein, which is still linked inextricably to the IRA and its army council. It will form a power-sharing executive alongside the DUP, with those two parties wielding a veto on controversial policy decisions, while the smaller Ulster Unionist and Alliance parties are also entitled to ministries under the D’Hondt system.

Sinn Fein’s ‘northern leader’ Michelle O’Neill will take the first minister’s job, with all the symbolism that that entails, while a ‘co-equal’ deputy first minister will be nominated by the DUP. That alone puts the unionist party in an awkward position. And with its customary tact, Sinn Fein immediately claimed that O’Neill’s new post would put Northern Ireland’s removal from the UK ‘within touching distance’.

That kind of triumphalism is not even the central difficulty with this reboot of power-sharing. To illustrate the divisions in recent versions of Stormont, the last time it successfully set its own budget was in 2016. A new administration will be required to agree to a ‘programme for government’, which is generally a vague and aspirational document, but the financial details may prove trickier.

In addition, the deal with the government included a supposed £3.3bn financial package, intended to help ailing public services in Northern Ireland. That money, like previous cash commitments from the Treasury, is linked to the executive finally delivering reforms to an outdated, wasteful system and putting its finances on a sustainable footing.

The chances of that happening successfully look slim.

To take one prominent example, for more than twenty years, Stormont’s health ministers have commissioned a succession of reports that all recommended largely the same thing: medical services in the province needed to be centralised in fewer acute hospitals, with a greater emphasis on community care. That required making potentially unpopular decisions, so the recommendations were never carried through.

It’s difficult to imagine an even more bitterly divided executive implementing policies that could prompt a public backlash. As if to underline this point, some of Sinn Fein’s heartlands, like South Armagh and Fermanagh South Tyrone, are already decorated with ad-hoc party-branded billboards demanding that all services in local hospitals are saved.

Similarly, the power-sharing executive has, in the past, refused to implement water charges in the province, while financing populist goodies like free prescriptions and free public transport for all over-60s.

In the latest Assembly and executive, it looks even less likely that there will be a responsible debate about whether Northern Ireland can really afford these things. And, if they are genuine priorities, what other public spending is being sacrificed as a result?

In short, the deal is likely to mean the return of devolved government in a form that is even more divided, dysfunctional and sclerotic than before.

In Northern Ireland over the past two years, many of the DUP’s opponents and the media have tried to manufacture a consensus that the lack of power-sharing has caused all kinds of economic and social problems. The constitutional issues created by the protocol were portrayed as unimportant abstractions in comparison.

With his recent statements and his commitment to this deal, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has effectively come round to that view. Now, he is under pressure to show that devolution really is the best way to solve Northern Ireland’s problems and strengthen the Union.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.