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The Current State of Politics in Northern Ireland, and a Prediction of What is to Come

Member Views is a series of opinion pieces written by Blue Beyond members.

Thursday 9th January marked the third anniversary of the collapse of the Northern Irish Assembly. Northern Irish politics was once again in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Although a deal has now been reached, and the political deadlock has been broken, Northern Irish politics is being held together by a loose thread. It will be interesting to see what is to come.

Indeed, Northern Irish politics can appear daunting from the outside looking in- a complex blend of four Agreements spread between 1998 and 2014. It is somewhat the red-headed stepchild of British politics, the odd one out. Yet, the institutions still resemble the other two devolved governments in the United Kingdom: Scotland and Wales. However, there are striking differences and circumstances foreign to anywhere else in the UK, which makes Northern Irish politics so intriguing.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement given royal assent by 71% of the vote in a referendum with a turnout of 81% in April 1998. Here it is crucial to note that 99% of the nationalist community voted “yes”, while only 57% of the unionist community voted did so. This was due to a number of concerns from the unionist community, some of which still prevail to this day and makes it apparent that from the start, a divide was clear. The Executive was led by the David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) as First Minister and Seamus Mallon of the Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) as Deputy First Minister. This government lasted 72 days before devolution was suspended.

Boris Johnson, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Arlene Foster of the DUP and Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith at Stormont.

The Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement depending on who you ask) provided a “consociational model” for the devolved government. In layman’s terms, it is a system of government that is thought to be the best solution for divided societies. In the Northern Irish Assembly, it has four key features: a mutual veto to ensure no community is dominated, a proportional system of voting; a power-sharing Executive; and guarantees of cultural equality.

Unlike the British Parliament, the Northern Irish Assembly constituencies are multi-member, having five seats available. It is elected through a system of Proportional Representation – Single Transferrable Vote (PR-STV): voters order their selection of candidates in preference of 1-5, and each constituency must meet a quota of voters required to secure a seat. This ensures all aspects of the community are fairly represented, and no one community dominates the other, it is notably different from Westminster’s system of First-Past-The-Post.

Since the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, there are 90 MLAs elected, and 10 Departmental ministers appointed. Since the St. Andrews Agreement in 2007, the largest party choose the First Minister, and the second-largest party of the other community chooses the Deputy First Minister. The other eight ministers are chosen through the D’Hondt formula. Seen as the fairest way of allocating seats, D’Hondt attempts to make sure parties receive ministerial seats in as close a correlation to their overall vote as possible. To avoid complexity, it is a way of making sure that the Executive is compromised of as many parties as possible, each with a role in the power-sharing model.

This formula, however, ensures there is no outright majority in the Northern Irish Assembly, and the Executive is absent of the collective responsibility British politics is renowned for. The First Minister lacks the dominance over their executive branch which we are accustomed to in Westminster, and ministers have been known to criticise one another publically. D’Hondt means that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister do not exhibit the same power of patronage over the Executive which the Prime Minister does over their cabinet. They cannot remove a minister, and ministers are said to have their own “fiefdoms” – exhibiting considerable freedoms in their departments. For example, the decision to end the 11-plus (school transfer test) was made by the then education secretary Martin McGuinness in 2002 (coming into effect in 2007) rather than the Executive as a whole. This practice of pushing through legislation against the wishes of the Executive Office was known as a “solo run”. However, “solo runs” were stopped through the 2010 Hillsborough Agreement.

The power-sharing nature of the Assembly means the strength of the position of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister somewhat relies on their professional relationship. The unlikely partnership of the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness – dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers” by the media – saw a functioning, mature government which during 2007-2011 provided further hope for a shared future.

Legislation is introduced primarily by the Executive Office. Bills are introduced by the relevant minister and are then voted on in the Assembly – requiring a simple majority to be passed. Of 67 bills passed between 2011-2016, 60 of these were Executive Bills. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

However, this doesn’t account for Northern Ireland’s unique legislative mechanism known as the “Petition of Concern”. To cut a long story short: to prevent discriminatory legislation being passed against one community by the other, a safeguarding measure was introduced by the Good Friday Agreement, which allowed 30 MLA’s from at least two parties to sign a petition of concern designating the legislation as a “key decision” requiring a revised vote. This vote needs a weighted majority (60% of MLAs are present and 40% of nationalists and 40% of unionists voting in favour) or parallel consent (needs a majority of MLAs present and a majority of both communities voting in favour). This tool has been abused by both Sinn Féin and the DUP due to their strong numerical advantage having 27 and 28 MLAs, respectively. In the 2011-2016 mandate, there were 115 Petitions of Concern.

Ironically, Petitions of Concerns have been used by the DUP to prevent same-sex marriage legislation being passed four times between 2011-2016, upholding discriminatory practice! Petitions of Concerns allow the two largest parties to impose their agenda over the whole Assembly. However, there is proposed reform in the recent deal to bring it closer to its intended purpose. Until this reform happens, I would remain sceptical.

What scrutiny occurs in the Northern Irish Assembly? Scrutiny is an essential aspect of any democracy. Interestingly, most scrutiny happens through Committees, question time, and adjournment debates. Missing from this list is an Official Opposition, which is one of the key methods of scrutiny in the UK. This was addressed in 2016 in a Private Member’s Bill by John McCallister. The Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act 2016 allowing the choice to go into the Opposition for minority parties. Subsequently, in 2016, the Alliance Party, the UUP, and SDLP went into the Opposition until the Assembly collapsed in 2017, and the new Assembly formed in 2020 lacks this Opposition as these parties re-joined the Executive Office. Political commentators worry about the detrimental effect the lack of an Opposition will have, commenting on both a lack of progression reverting back to the same old, same old and will effect scrutiny in the new Assembly.

The Assembly Chamber, inside of the Stormont parliament buildings.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has limited powers, similar to Scottish or Welsh Parliament, and only legislates on devolved areas of policy. An example of these powers include Health and Social services, Education, Housing, Transport, and as of 2010 Policing and Justice. Despite having limited powers, this has not always resulted in focused and well thought through legislation. In 2012 the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment, led at the time by now DUP leader Arlene Foster, put forward the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). The RHI offered financial incentives to those who would install renewable technologies. This scheme was abused as the money received for each kilowatt of energy produced was more than the cost of generating heat. It is estimated to have cost £1 billion and contributed to the 3 year collapse of the Assembly.

There are five main parties in the Assembly: the DUP, UUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, and Alliance Party. Notice missing from this list is the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Northern Irish politics finds itself polarised, unlike anywhere else in the UK - religiously, culturally, and politically. To condense these parties down to 10 lines is criminal. However, I will attempt to provide a basic overview. The two major parties – DUP and Sinn Féin - are polar opposites, like hot and cold. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is right-wing, unionist, and socially conservative – opposing gay marriage and abortion legislation. Sinn Féin is left-wing, was the political wing of the IRA, and is socially liberal. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is hard to define. The UUP lacks direction and has experienced numerous leaders since 2002 – the last time it headed the Executive. The party ranges from DUP-lite to trying to out DUP the DUP. The Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) finds itself closer to the centre left of the political spectrum, however, has experienced a bounce in the December 2019 Parliamentary elections, benefiting from disgruntled voters making a stand against the “duopoly” of Sinn Féin and the DUP and returned one MP. The Alliance Party finds itself in the centre ground, however, has found that it is impossible to please everyone, and allegations of favouritism are made by both sides of the divide.

For those unaccustomed to Northern Irish politics, generally speaking, nationalists vote for nationalists and unionists vote for unionists. Parties fight for election in their communities. It is unionist candidate vs. unionist candidate and vice versa. It is not the same environment that saw the “Red Wall” turn blue in 2019 – a concept that can be hard to wrap your head around. If you are wondering, where do I go if I am a Unionist with liberal or socialist opinions? Or where do I go if I want a United Ireland, however, support economically right-wing policies? There, unfortunately, is no easy answer to those questions.

How will Brexit affect Northern Ireland? Northern Ireland is unique; it is the only member of the UK to have a land border with another EU country and has a very close yet complicated relationship with the Republic of Ireland. Arguably, Northern Ireland may stand more to lose from Brexit and, due to its small size, may struggle to wield significant influence in the negotiations. However, it could also be said that Northern Ireland has a unique advantage to the rest of the UK, benefitting both from the advantages to Brexit while maintaining a close relationship with Ireland. As Boris Johnson said on his visit to Northern Ireland in November 2019, “Northern Ireland has a great deal”. Only time will tell what is to come for Northern Ireland. Despite the scaremongering, it is hard to see a “United Ireland” in the near distant future, especially under a Conservative government. Although, this has not subsided Unionist angst over its prospects in the years to come.

Alistair Norton