Clare Rice (University of Newcastle)
Changes in the political sphere in Northern Ireland have been happening rapidly in the weeks since the 2019 General Election. At that stage, Northern Ireland did not have a functioning Assembly or Executive, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were fresh from their relationship breakdown with Boris Johnson, healthcare workers were taking to picket lines in their fight for pay parity with the rest of the United Kingdom (UK) and Northern Ireland was gearing up for one of the most unpredictable elections in recent times.
When the results started to emerge in the small hours of the 13th December, shockwaves were sent through the two largest parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin. These parties had held all bar 1 of Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats after the 2017 election. For the DUP, the loss of its Westminster Leader, Nigel Dodds in Belfast North to Sinn Féin’s John Finucane, and Emma Little-Pengelly in South Belfast to Claire Hanna of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), were shocks to the party’s Westminster team. In all other constituencies where the party retained seats, their margins were reduced, for example, in East Belfast, Gavin Robinson’s lead of almost 8,500 was reduced to under 2,000 – albeit this came with a sigh of relief as Alliance Party’s, Naomi Long, was thought to have had the potential to reclaim the seat.
For Sinn Féin, the picture was not wholly different. Their loss of Elisha McCallion in Foyle to the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)’s leader, Colum Eastwood, by a huge margin of 17,110 votes was somewhat played down in light of the success in North Belfast. However, this was a blow for the party, having only gained the seat for the first time at the previous election in 2017. The party also suffered an overall decrease in percentage share of the votes, dropping 6.7%.
Overall, this election had the impact of shaking up Northern Ireland’s representation in Westminster. While DUP and Sinn Féin dominance prevailed, the outcome was that there would be SDLP (2) and Alliance (1) voices added to the choir at this level as well.
There are numerous potential explanations for this having happened.
One potential factor may have been the way in which the relationship between the DUP and the Conservative Party was managed, and what some projected was the inevitability of its ultimate demise. Arguably, the party overestimated the strength of conviction showed by Boris Johnson when he spoke at the DUP party conference in 2018, opposing any form of a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The fundaments of the deal that Johnson returned from Brussels with did just that. Even a matter of weeks before this, Johnson and the DUP leadership were jovially interacting at a Northern Ireland fringe event to the Conservative Party Conference. It seems that it came as a shock to the DUP when they were, to use the phrase that became commonly used in discussing it, ‘thrown under a bus’ by their once ally in his pursuit of Brexit.
Where the party had held a legitimate position of power while Theresa May was in office, and their position and influence was taken seriously, this changed fundamentally with the change in premiership. Some were frustrated that the DUP did not recognise the change, others annoyed that a ‘worse’ Brexit for Northern Ireland had been the outcome of the relationship. Further, there were some (also here and here) that felt the projection of Northern Irish interests through the prism of the DUP’s perspective had overlooked the diversity in viewpoints in Northern Ireland and had made it even more difficult for a collective Northern Irish voice to be heard on the UK side through the Brexit deal negotiation process.
For Sinn Féin, their changing electoral fortune in the 2019 General Election could have been partly explained by their abstentionist policy, which means that party members elected do not take their seats in Westminster. It is possible that the loss of the Foyle seat to the SDLP, a party which does take seats in Westminster, could in part have been a reaction to the absence of a Foyle voice in the House of Commons in the previous years, particularly as this has always previously been the case. This was the continuation in a decline in electoral fortunes for the party, which also saw a drop in vote share in the European Election just months earlier.
It must also be contemplated what role the so-called ‘Alliance surge’ played in this election. This itself was considered partially to be a reaction against the diametrically opposed positions of Sinn Féin and the DUP, however, it cannot be said with certainty if the party’s increase in percentage share of votes in 17 of the 18 constituencies was encouraged by the success of the party at council and European levels earlier in 2019, or if there were other factors that brought people out to vote for the party, resulting in it making the greatest percentage gain in Northern Ireland out of all the parties at 8.8%. For comparison, the next highest was the SDLP at 3.1%. This figure is skewed by the North Down result, which until this election was not a constituency where the same number of votes for the Alliance Party would have been seen and the primary battle would have been between Lady Hermon and the DUP. The emergence of pacts along ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ lines was also intrinsic to determining the overall percentages achieved by parties, and the Alliance Party benefitted from this in North Down, as well as East Belfast. It is difficult to say, therefore, if an Alliance surge did happen, and even harder to say with any level of certainty if this would also carry into an Assembly election.
But one of the most significant explanations that might exist for the way the electorate voted in December 2019 is sentiment towards the political inertia in Northern Ireland. An obvious anomaly in the election campaign was that despite the election being for seats in Westminster, much of the discourse was in terms of domestic-level politics. On all sides, parties spoke about the issues in Northern Ireland, the ‘red lines’ that had prevented the parties from going back into government together, Brexit, and the challenges in healthcare, education and other areas of devolved competence. It was clear that this vote wasn’t just for Westminster representatives; it was also a straw poll on public sentiment about the institutional hiatus.
At the end of November, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, called on the parties to come together on 16th December – the week after the election – to start a fresh set of negotiations aimed at restarting the institutions. It was against the backdrop of these changes that the parties came together. A deadline of 13th January was set, and with the credible threat of an Assembly Election should the date not be met, talks progressed at speed.
There were a number of key issues that necessitated attention, inclusive of Irish language provisions, reform of the Petition of Concern, the recruitment and management of Special Advisors and legacy issues. While requiring support from all 5 of the largest parties involved in the negotiations, at the centre of the discussions were Sinn Féin and the DUP, often to the exclusion of the other parties.
However, despite the challenges, a document was produced late on 9th January that all parties agreed to, called ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA). The Assembly convened to elect a Speaker, Deputy Speakers and to run the d’Hondt process for the allocation of departments in the Executive on Saturday 11th January, and with that, business as usual resumed from the following Monday.
In thinking about these recent developments from a Brexit perspective, it becomes evident, as highlighted in this briefing paper on the NDNA agreement, that Brexit was rarely mentioned in the document. The focus of the talks was introspective and the negotiations occurred on the margins of Brexit as a challenge for Northern Ireland as opposed to it holding a central role. This is both surprising, given the role Brexit played in perpetuating the obstacles to getting the Assembly restarted, yet positive, in light of the success of any future Assembly being contingent on the working relationship between Sinn Féin and the DUP being repaired. To have focused the negotiations on Brexit would not have made sense, and would have been likely to result in further difficulties in the future.
Despite this, it is evident that Brexit remains at the forefront of political minds in Northern Ireland. One of the first votes to be held in the Assembly was one that meant consent was not given by the legislature to Johnson’s Brexit deal. Despite the range of views on Brexit present within the institution, this vote passed unanimously. While it was never something that could have derailed Brexit, there was a symbolic significance in the Assembly taking this vote and expressing any position on the matter, not least a shared one.
There is also an added Brexit-related incentive to politicians to ensure the institutions keep functioning. NDNA outlines that the Northern Ireland Executive will have a place in UK delegations before the Specialised Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement’s Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol and the Joint Committee where Northern Ireland and devolved matters are discussed. This will only be possible if the institutions are functioning. Further, having political leaders in place to take policy decisions that were beyond the powers of civil servants will now mean that devolved matters that will be impacted by Brexit can be dealt with, rather than a backlog being created that could further stymie progress or see a return to direct rule happening.
With just over two years remaining of the current mandate, it is inevitable that the Assembly and Executive will be faced with challenges arising from Brexit sooner rather than later. That no party decided to enter into Official Opposition in the Assembly on this occasion might make it somewhat easier for coherent and agreed positions to be adopted on these challenges and how to approach them through cross-party work. The presence of an Opposition, while democratically valuable, might have otherwise made this more difficult by very publicly highlighting differences in perspectives.
Financial security would undoubtedly take some of the pressure off politicians and parties by removing the need for them to barter over how existing funds should be distributed. While not a novel concept in any political arrangement, the commitments made in the NDNA document necessitate financial support that, currently, is not sufficient for them all to be achieved. At the time of writing, discussions are on-going to increase the support from the UK Government. If the parties have to rely on negotiating to secure additional funds to meet NDNA commitments within their own departments, or if a hierarchy of NDNA commitments has to be established in order to prioritise where money should be directed, this could have the result of driving a wedge between parties at a time when they need a safety net. Another consequence could be that some or all of the NDNA commitments are not acted upon in order to avoid any such ructions. In the context of the RHI inquiry report pending, and with general insecurity prompted by Brexit uncertainty, neither would be good for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland faces new challenges in the months and years that lie ahead. In the context of Brexit, the next decade will present new and difficult obstacles that will test the resolve of all the political parties to work together. That all parties share a common position on Johnson’s Brexit deal is a good starting point after three years of division – Northern Ireland now has its own voice when it comes to Brexit. There is every hope that the provisions outlined in the NDNA agreement were not just lip-service to get a deal done, but that they are serious commitments to improving governance in Northern Ireland. Business as it was done before simply will not be enough anymore if the challenges ahead are to be navigated. Only time will tell how all of this unfolds.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Clare Rice is a Research Assistant at Newcastle University Law School (www.performingidentities.org)