On Northern Ireland’s Revival

Amidst the many failures of Brexit, the sheer depth of the self-harm of the DUP’s particular tilt at the windmill stands out.  Just weeks before the 2016 referendum, Arlene Foster emerged from Northern Ireland Assembly elections as the apparent mistress of all she surveyed.  The DUP was the largest party by a wide margin, Sinn Fein’s vote was down by 3% and the hard-right of Unionism had been restricted to a lone Assembly member.  

Even after the Assembly collapsed in 2017, the DUP gained unexpected leverage at Westminster, holding the balance of power in a custom-and-supply arrangement with the Conservatives just as the terms of Brexit were being negotiated.  Yet despite Teresa May’s efforts at olive branches, DUP MPs increasingly aligned with the Brexit-diehards in the European Research Group, pinning their hopes on the promises of one Boris Johnson.  

On the very day Johnson secured his allegedly ‘oven-ready’ deal, it was clear that the DUP was the turkey.  Once the Covid clouds cleared, Northern Ireland emerged with a border in the Irish Sea, Unionists had lost their natural majority, the anti-Brexit Alliance Party had emerged as a credible third political force and Sinn Fein were well on their way to becoming the largest party in a place expressly created as a fortress against Republicanism.  While the DUP went through two leaders in a month, the visible leadership of the anti-Protocol movement was devolved to agitators outside the DUP.   Erstwhile partners in Northern Ireland and supposed allies in the Conservative Party evaporated. Unionism was reduced to exercising a veto on Northern Ireland itself as public services crumbled, and pay rises went unpaid in a cost-of-living crisis.

In 2023, a newly-sobered UK government under Rishi Sunak was suddenly anxious to put the residual wrangling with the EU to bed.  Once again, Unionist interests in Northern Ireland were not allowed to stand in the way of English interests.   While the EU was unbending in its insistence that the Single Market should be protected, they indicated that the practical details of implementation and special measures were negotiable.   The result was the Windsor Framework, a Protocol 2.0 largely negotiated with business and academics in Northern Ireland, that focussed on reducing the practical obstacles to free-flowing movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland while protecting the rules of Single Market.

Despite their political isolation in Northern Ireland, Westminster and the diplomatic world, the DUP continued to hold out.  Hard line opposition to any compromise on the Protocol was vocal, organised, and prepared.  The political stakes for the DUP, and for Jeffrey Donaldson as leader, had not reduced.   

Although Donaldson had concluded that no further concessions could be won, there were therefore several false starts, not least just before Christmas when the Grand Old Duke of York seemed to have reached the top of the Hill only to march back down again.  Outside anti-Protocol Unionism, patience was running thin.  Not only was the British government unwilling to negotiate, but a general public sector strike in January indicated that the days of passive acceptance of delayed pay rises were over.

Like bankruptcy, change was first gradual, and then sudden.  After DUP party officers accepted the deal behind closed doors, the UK government moved fast to put soothing words in place to smooth the path.  The words appeared to suggest that the UK would seek to avoid future deviation from EU regulation and that Unionism’s place in the Union was secure.  There were further reductions in the visibility of border checks.  In practice, however, there had been no changes in treaty in either the Windsor Framework or the Good Friday Agreement.  Furthermore, Ministers were keen to reassure their Brexit-supporters that the UK could continue to deviate from EU law as and when it liked.

Crucially, as long as the deal was enough to restart the Northern Ireland Assembly and to establish a new Executive, nobody from Brussels to Belfast stood in the way.  For Sinn Fein, the prize of nominating a Sinn Fein ‘First’, as opposed to ‘deputy First’ Minister, was immense. Despite evident splits in the DUP and anti-Protocol movement and serious concerns about the promises made to the DUP to get them over the political line, the deal was on.

Nothing, of course is certain.  Sinn Fein have embarked on a twin strategy of reassurance to Unionists while promoting the ‘inevitability’ of a poll on the future of the Irish border from a position of high visibility and confidence.  The DUP have accepted, for now, that Northern Ireland has a Republican figure-head, but remain bruised by internal divisions and under attack from the ultra-Unionist wing.    As the Ministries were shared out between the parties, Sinn Fein, traditionally the party of insurgent outsiders took control of finance economics and investment, while Unionists, traditional sceptics of state expenditure, took charge of the three largest spending Departments outside Justice.  There are symbolically difficult decisions ahead on who gets what and whether symbolic projects like the expansion of the Gaelic Games stadium in West Belfast will get the go ahead and hugely difficult issues of public-spending to be negotiated.

But there were other signals.  For the first time, the parties seemed at least to acknowledge that painful choices would be required if public services were to be saved.   The tone of both the First and deputy First Ministers was conciliatory in the first days.  Both the DUP and Sinn Fein made significant gestures of rapprochement in relation to education and policing, matters of serious contest in the past.  Not least, all parties seemed to acknowledge for now, that the Northern Ireland population had reached the end of their tolerance for the absence of government decision-making.  This, it seems, is the last chance saloon for mandatory coalition and nobody seems to fancy the alternatives too much.

It is early days.  The honeymoon of new and still untested leadership, relief at the return of government and the hope of soon-to-be implemented backpay has lightened the mood.  In one sense, the deal is the sign that Brexit is, finally, done for now.  In another, the Northern Ireland that has been put together after is fragile and unstable, dependent on politics and economics in places where its influence is marginal, but the effect of its instability is considerable.  The new balance of power that is in place is far from the balance imagined in 1998.  The future of the Irish border, and of relations in Northern Ireland have changed but they have not been resolved.  And much in Belfast depends on what happens in London, Dublin, Brussels and Edinburgh.  One more step.

Comments (9)

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  1. Jim Aitken says:

    Cogently analysed piece. The key to Stormont being up and running, at least for now, was the public sector pay strike in January.
    Such a strike involved both nationalist and unionist forces sickened at the appalling level of hospital waiting times and falling levels of wages amid increased prices. Such economic conditions affect everyone. The DUP could simply hold out no longer.

  2. Mike Parr says:

    SF have pulled a blinder. The Orange imbeciles will be blamed for a failure to deliver services – whilst SF hold the purse strings. I’d give it ten years & United ireland.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thank you for this discussion and analysis. It is early days, but initial signs offer a degree of optimism.

    It should be remembered that, like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted by a significant majority to remain in the EU. And, despite ‘Brexit having got done’, the people of Northern Ireland have, substantially got what they voted for in the referendum. Under the Good Friday Agreement each resident can have Irish citizenship and, hence, EU citizenship. NI remains part of the ‘single market’.

    Because of the GFA, the unionists have the power of a veto and have used it to suspend Stormont, and, consequently, reduce public services in the area to the edge of collapse. The public sector unions called the unionists’ bluff and the DUP, saw they had lost and backed off.

    This is not to say they have changed their unionism and loyalism. They are, Micawber-like, ‘waiting for something to turn up’. This is a group which has a slogan, ‘never forget, never forgive’.

    Demographics in NI means they no longer have the majority of the population and that proportion will continue to decrease. In NI, as in other places, religious adherence is falling. Within unionism, which historically has been an mutually disliking alliance between affluent middle classes and Protestant working classes’. The former see that their continued affluence is predicated on Europe, and the Protestant working class solidarity is weakened by unemployment and low waged unskilled employment. Their children’s academic qualifications are matched by those of Roman Catholic children who now have equal access to education.

    The liberal social legislation in the Irish Republic stands in stark contrast to the narrow minded ultra conservative legislation in the North and also in stark contrast to that in the rest of the U.K., of which they wish to remain a part.

    However the new Stormont works out and however the forthcoming elections in Ireland and the UK turn out, it is unlikely that it will mean a return to the old Protest oligarchy.

    1. William Davison says:

      A majority of those who voted in the EU referendum did vote “Remain,” but it depends what you mean by a “significant majority.” Of our total electorate 34% voted “Remain,” 28% voted “Leave” and 38% didn’t vote, the percentages are rounded up to avoid going to the nth degree of decimal points. In every election, whether local government, Assembly or Westminister, the non-voting section of our population stays around the same level. The exception to this rule was the 1998 vote on the GFA when a significant number of our habitual non-voters decided to make their opinion known. So the 34% will be happy, the 28% unhappy and no one knows how the 38% feel. Time will have to pass before we know whether our current status as an EU/UK Condominium will work and be beneficial, or not.
      I agree with Duncan when he says that “the new balance of power that is in place is far from the balance imagined in 1998.” The current dispensation is not based on the equilibrium between nationalism and unionism promised by the GFA, but on the Protocol, which disturbs that equilibrium by being almost comically biased in favour of nationalist aims and ethos. But really there’s not much unionists can do about it, as the UK government has clearly decided that currying favour with the EU and Irish government is much more important than adhering to the terms of the GFA.
      By the way, I’ve no idea why you think we’ve got ultra-conservative legislation over here, our abortion provision is the most liberal in the UK, even if a party wanted to pass this type of legislation, they couldn’t do it, the Assembly wouldn’t pass it and the UK government wouldn’t allow it.
      As to Mike Parr’s remark about the “Orange imbeciles” being blamed for various public services not receiving the pay parity with the rest of the UK which they deserved, I can reassure him on that issue. The trade unions were very clear who they held responsible and it was the UK government and our SOS, Chris Heaton-Harris, that they rightly held culpable for using the issue as political blackmail. The government could have paid the cash, whether an Assembly/Executive was sitting, or not. We are very used to our institutions not operating, Sinn Fein having previously collapsed them between 2017 and 2020.

      1. John says:

        William – your interpretation of statistics and what the different voters have got from Brexit is very convoluted and comes across as one eyed.
        The 34% of total electorate that voted to Remain will not be very happy as what they wanted was the full membership of EU that they had prior to Brexit vote and they no longer have that.
        The Brexit referendum was a binary option referendum where the options were the status quo or change. It is pretty uniformly accepted that if voters do not vote in such a referendum they are not in favour of change. It is fair to say that the 38% were not overly keen on Brexit or they would have gone out and voted Leave.

  4. John says:

    A combative, working class women who is not afraid to speak her mind, who wants her nation to leave the UK.
    Just wait for the British establishment, misogynist media and politicians deride her.

  5. James Scott says:

    Irrespective of who may have been responsible for the headline here, my response to it is ‘Qué?’

    Perhaps the intention was to communicate the concept ‘On the Northern Ireland Assembly’s revival’?

    Given the background of the author, which I presume I have discovered correctly online, but which is not presented here, the latter more limited title makes sense, but the wider version as printed certainly does not for me.

    Although the decision to give the DUP and its leadership a good kicking is one which any right thinking liberal must automatically endorse, the article does, from my point of view, suffer from weaknesses.

    The author makes the point that this new start has not been the result of any new deal with the EU, yet he surely fails to give this omission the emphasis which it requires . The Windsor Protocol which the agreement purports to adjust, improve, re-interpret was a formal agreement between the UK and the EU which Professor Wiki tells me was:
    * announced on 27 February 2023,
    * formally adopted by both parties on 24 March 2023
    * came into effect on 1 October 2023

    The same source tells me of the Protocol and of its new interpretation that the DUP ‘ declined to accept the [Protocol] as meeting their concerns until further adjustments to its operation were agreed on 31 January 2024’

    Yet the legal, political, treaty basis for this ostensibly significantly improved, at least from a DUP perspective, iteration of the Protocol is nowhere to be seen. Neither in this article nor elsewhere.

    Press reports indicated that the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland has endorsed the new deal but that the European Commission’s Vice-President in charge of UK relations, said the commission would analyse the text carefully before taking a position!

    Is it really the case that 26 EU nations are willing to accept a new legal and political status quo relating to something as central to the EU as the single market on the basis of a nod of the head and a pat on the back from Micheal Martin in Dublin?

    Even before last week’s display of discontent by EU farmers, I found this hard to believe. I am far more inclined to ascribe the current situation to yet more wishful thinking, perhaps even imperial nostalgia, on the part, not merely of the DUP and of the Tory Party leadership, but of what appears to be an increasingly politicised and rudderless UK Civil and Diplomatic Service.

    The author tells us that ‘ The new balance of power that is in place is far from the balance imagined in 1998’ and nobody surely can dispute this. In his concentration on the DUP he has, however, failed to convey just how much ‘Ireland,’ by which I specifically mean The Republic, has changed in the same period. Ditto: Sinn Fein.

    In both cases, the founders of Official Sinn Fein would surely be perplexed to find that some 50 years after their radical conversion to the Marxist-Leninist cause, the ‘rural, pre-industrial church dominated’ state they aspired to govern had indeed been transformed. But rather than becoming a haven for Cuban or Vietnamese political praxis it had become the epitome of an EU capitalist state with Christine Lagarde, Elon Musk, Apple and Sinead O’Connor occupying the commanding heights of the economy and the society.

    Even more so when they inspected the evolution of literally mortal rivals Provisional Sinn Fein. Where formerly these crypto-fascists had been de facto the strongest supporters of the priest ridden Southern state, they have seamlessly transformed into worthy successors of Gardiner Place itself; even less sure than Sir Keith as to what exactly ‘a woman’ might be.

    Many commentators have long seen them as likely to form the largest party in the Dail after the next elections, with the prospects of leading a coalition government there. Whether these predictions remain true in the light of an apparently sudden awakening by considerable swathes of the Irish electorate to the realities of 21st century immigration is surely a moot point.

    Even more so in the light of a very recent poll which showed a major reduction in support for the party and which indicates that, amongst electors who have already voted for Sinn Fein:
    53% believe that immigration has been negative for the Republic
    72% support a more restrictive immigration policy
    77% ‘would have concerns’ if an immigrant centre opened in their area.

    1. James Scott says:

      Sir Keir

      ‘Mea maxima culpa’

    2. John says:

      Correct me if I am wrong but I think the author is a member of the Alliance Party. If I am correct this would make him fairly impartial in his views wrt unification and in line with majority in NI in that he didn’t vote for Brexit.

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