Stormont collapse prevents hard border Brexit solutions

January 2019 marks two years since Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed at Stormont. Jordan Smith argues that this collapse benefits the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and its Brexit agenda whilst undermining representation and stability in Northern Ireland.

Stormont Northern Ireland
Stormont Northern Ireland
Jordan Smith
Wed 23 Jan 2019

Since January 2017, Northern Ireland has had no functioning government, which has left Sinn Fein and the other parties out in the cold whilst Downing Street persistently extends an ear to the DUP in shaping the position of Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations.

January 2019 marks two years since the devolved government collapsed at Stormont, giving Northern Ireland the unwanted world record as the country with the longest period without a governing executive.

The issue arose when revelations about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme showed that its mismanagement had cost the Northern Irish executive £480m. The deal had been approved by First Minister Arlene Foster in 2012, which led to calls from opposition parties including Sinn Fein for Foster to resign from her post. Nonetheless, these calls were ignored, leading Sinn Fein’s then-Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to resign his post in protest – and the party then refused to replace him.

Under the rules for governing the devolved body, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are effectively a shared office with equal power and can only function with mutual support. Consequently, McGuinness’ resignation collapsed the executive and meant that Arlene Foster was removed from her position.

Fresh Assembly elections were then called by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, in March 2017, resulting in even narrower results that returned 28 seats to the DUP and 27 to Sinn Fein. For the first time since 1998, the assembly was not comprised of a unionist overall majority.

Since then, numerous talks have been held between the parties in a bid to restore power. However, these have proven unsuccessful, leading Westminster to approve a budget in November 2017 effectively meaning that the UK had restored direct rule in all but name.

These talks provided Sinn Fein with the opportunity to air further grievances beyond the RHI scandal, including the abuse of the Petition of Concern, which allows one side of the unionist-nationalist divide to veto any legislation if it undermines the rights of the other side of the community. This has been used to block same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, as well as recognition of the Irish language on a par with English.

Westminster has ignored the political deadlock at Stormont and the impact this has had on finding an Irish border solution

The complexity of these contemporary disagreements in Northern Irish politics comes at a time when the UK faces its most significant constitutional crisis in decades. Brexit has been making headlines for the last three years and the issue surrounding the Irish border has been a sticking point in UK-EU negotiations. However, for some reason, Westminster has ignored the political deadlock at Stormont and the potential impact this has had on finding an acceptable and workable solution to a post-Brexit Irish border. The outcome inevitably has resulted in deadlock at Westminster too.

Whilst Theresa May’s government has made many errors during its Brexit negotiations, one that is often overlooked is James Brokenshire and Karen Bradley’s failure to restore devolved government in Belfast. Having mediated successful talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, a functioning and cooperative Northern Irish Assembly could have provided a workable scenario that respects the Good Friday Agreement and represents the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

Instead, the disastrous timing of the 2017 General Election saw Theresa May gamble away the Conservative majority in the House of Commons, leaving her little alternative but to enter into a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP. As a result, the DUP has been given significant airtime over the last 18 months at the detriment of Northern Irish opposition parties, including Sinn Fein. The SDLP, Alliance Party and Green Party of Northern Ireland have not received the same level of opportunities to discuss Brexit in the national media, resulting in a distorted representation of Northern Irish attitudes towards Brexit.

The implementation of a hard border is likely to inflame sectarian tensions

Furthermore, as rumours spread that May has considered amending the Good Friday Agreement, it becomes ever clearer that the Conservative government will jeopardise the peace and stability of Northern Ireland in order to push forward with May’s Brexit plan, which was defeated by 230 votes in Parliament on 15 January. The mere consideration of such a move should be interpreted as a attempt to appease the DUP and gain its support since the party opposed the Good Friday Agreement throughout its negotiation in the 1990s.

As with the rest of her political manoeuvring, reports of May’s intention to alter the Good Friday Agreement reveal more poor timing, coming just two days after armed nationalist paramilitary group the New IRA carried out a car bombing outside a courthouse in the city of Derry. The bomb exploded just minutes after a group of teenagers had passed by.

Whilst the actions of paramilitary groups cannot be directly linked to Brexit (and of course long pre-date it), this event highlights how fragile peace and security remains in the region. The implementation of a hard border once again is likely to inflame sectarian tensions that could reignite further paramilitary activity, putting the lives of ordinary Northern Irish citizens at risk.

In order to find an acceptable solution to the Irish border question, Westminster must realise the importance of restoring the executive at Stormont, not only to build consensus and accurately represent the people of Northern Ireland, but to ensure that public services are properly run and funded in order to prevent the economic stagnation that makes paramilitary activity more appealing to those already disenfranchised.

Jordan Smith is a member of the Swindon Green Party and formerly a member of Sinn Fein. He is studying for an MA in Violence, Terrorism and Security at Queen’s University Belfast. @jord_politik

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