6 January 2023

What chance of restoring power-sharing in time for the Good Friday festivities?


Once again, Northern Ireland started its new year without a devolved government – a situation that last pertained as recently as 2020. 

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, plans to address this by calling the province’s political parties together for ‘deadlock’ round-table talks, scheduled to begin on Wednesday. Unfortunately for him, these discussions are unlikely to achieve their aim of persuading unionists back into the institutions. 

In the spring, there will be a local council election in Northern Ireland and, if Heaton-Harris’ threats are to be taken seriously, probably a Stormont Assembly poll as well. The DUP promised voters repeatedly that power-sharing would not be restored until the government delivers a solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol. It will not want to fight one election having broken that pledge, never mind two.

At the ballot box last year, the DUP was shaken by the support it lost to its rival, the fiercely anti-protocol Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Jim Allister’s party attracted a surge of first preference votes, but failed to make a breakthrough due to the province’s unforgiving proportional electoral system.

For these reasons, there is almost no chance that the devolved executive will be restored in the next few months, unless the UK and the EU reach an agreement that addresses unionists’ objections to the Irish Sea border. Failing that, the Government will need to force through its Protocol bill, currently stalled in the House of Lords, and deliver an effective solution unilaterally, through legislation.

The chances of avoiding this impasse have not been improved by the return of Leo Varadkar, who started his second spell as Irish PM in December.

Mr Varadkar and his combative deputy, Simon Coveney, were deeply unpopular with unionists when he was previously Taoiseach, between 2017-2020. Pro-Union politicians accused his Fine Gael administration of cynically stoking anti-British sentiment, and playing hardball on Brexit, in an attempt to fend off Sinn Fein’s electoral challenge and burnish its nationalist credentials.

In a New Year message, though, Varadkar tried a more conciliatory start to his latest term in office. 

‘We’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit,’ he acknowledged, and the protocol, as it is drafted, is ‘too strict’. Indeed, the Taoiseach claimed to understand how that document is viewed by unionists: ‘They feel that it diminishes their place in the Union, that it creates barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland that didn’t exist before’.

The UK government welcomed Varadkar’s pledge to be ‘flexible and reasonable’, as it seeks to reform the sea border through negotiations with the EU. Ministers should remain sceptical, though, both about the sincerity of the Taoiseach’s “tone shift” and Brussels’ willingness to make meaningful concessions.

Mr Varadkar’s office has already dismissed the idea that, by using more empathetic language, he was suggesting that the text of the protocol could be renegotiated.

Indeed, it was fine for the Taoiseach to observe that ‘we’ve all made mistakes’, during the Brexit process. But remember that the main problems with the protocol were claimed initially as great victories for Irish ‘diplomacy’.

The Dublin prime minister still asserts that Brexit, ‘was imposed on Northern Ireland without cross-community consent’. ‘A lot of people from a nationalist background… feel that it separated them from the rest of Ireland.’

He draws no qualitative distinction, then, between deepening an existing border between two separate territories, as the result of a UK wide referendum, and dividing a single, unitary state with a new economic and political frontier. Worse than that, he specifically campaigned for and continues to justify the divisions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Actually, it was wrong to treat nationalist concerns about Brexit as if they were as valid as unionist concerns about an Irish Sea border, because, in essence, they were objecting to Northern Ireland being treated as a full part of the UK; an argument that was supposed to be settled by the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, Varadkar gave far more weight to nationalists’ assertions and, when the final arrangements reflected that lack of balance too, he treated it like a personal victory.

The Protocol caused problems because it didn’t respect British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, or the consequences that flow from that, and Varadkar’s latest comments do not suggest that he recognises that flaw. 

In contrast, the Government’s ‘position paper’, and the legislation it is currently navigating through the House of Lords, at least accepted in essence that four solutions were necessary to restore Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. 

1) Goods for sale in Northern Ireland’s domestic market should be allowed to move from Great Britain without checks or additional paperwork 2) British rules and standards must apply to goods for sale in Northern Ireland 3) The ECJ’s jurisdiction over NI needs be removed and 4) The government must be able to enact the same tax laws, subsidies and state aid schemes in NI that it can enact in Great Britain.

At the same time, the Government is reputedly eager to restore Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, which is due to be marked in April. President Biden also wants to jet into the province to take part in those festivities, but only if power-sharing is back in place and the UK has struck a deal with the EU.

The anniversary has symbolic power, as a staging post in Northern Ireland’s apparently endless ‘peace process’. But, the institutions are not operating because the protocol has demolished the idea that the province is governed by consensus, as well as shaking unionists’ faith that their place in the Union is protected by the principle of democratic consent. Even a proud architect of the Belfast Agreement, like the late Lord Trimble, believed that the Protocol had undermined the 1998 deal’s tenets to the point that they had become meaningless. 

If the Government doesn’t successfully address those problems, either through negotiation with the EU or through its own legislation, then there will be no Assembly at Stormont this year and no celebrations in April.

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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.