Northern Ireland’s government is back up and running – here’s how it happened and why

Peter John McLoughlin, Queen’s University Belfast

In a piece written for The Conversation, Peter McLoughlin provides a useful consideration of how the deadlock at Stormont has been overcome. The blog also outlines the continuing importance of legislative vetoes held by Sinn Féin and the DUP.

The Northern Ireland government is back up and running after the British and Irish governments jointly announced a draft deal to resolve the continued political stalemate in the region, exactly three years to the day since power-sharing broke down. A few days later, the deal has now been formally agreed.

It has been widely suggested that the Westminster elections, and losses suffered by both the DUP and Sinn Féin, were the main reason they suddenly agreed to return to sharing power. The threat of a fresh assembly election for Northern Ireland, which could see their dominance further eroded, may well have influenced their thinking. Recent gains by moderate parties, arguably reflecting the frustration of voters at the inability of Sinn Féin and the DUP to compromise, surely focused minds.

One of the key sticking points had been Sinn Féin’s insistence on legislation to help promote and protect the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Many unionists were staunchly opposed, seeing this as part of a broader project by Sinn Féin to gradually undermine the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland.

The new deal allows compromise on this issue. It promises to appoint an Irish language commissioner, and standards that pubic bodies will have to meet to provide services in Irish. However, balancing things out, Sinn Féin did not get the stand-alone Irish language act which it had demanded.

Indeed, the new deal makes similar commitments for Ulster-Scots, which is spoken by some unionists. It also states that the first minister and deputy first minister – posts long held by the DUP and Sinn Féin – must both agree on any new language proposals. That effectively gives the first minister, currently the DUP’s Arlene Foster, an effective veto over moves to give Irish greater prominence, such as by introducing bilingual road signs, for example.

On the subject of vetoes, the new deal also promises to reform the petition of concern mechanism, which gives members of the Northern Ireland assembly the ability to raise opposition to legislative proposals. It is this mechanism which effectively gave the DUP and Sinn Féin a veto over each other’s proposals, allowing them to gridlock and eventually collapse power-sharing in the first place.

Reform of the mechanism to minimise its use may help, but the DUP and Sinn Féin will also need to try harder to find compromise if things are to work. They both need to rebuild damaged relations and trust. In short, they must genuinely share power if they are to exercise any.

UK and Ireland step in

What really forced the deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP, however, was intervention from the British and Irish governments. Their decisiveness, and boldly pre-emptive announcement of a deal, resulted from the recent changes at Westminster.

Thus, it was not just the losses suffered by the DUP and Sinn Féin in the UK election which mattered. The Conservative victory can be said to have, in a way, “resolved” Brexit – at least for now. This allowed London and Dublin to finally focus on and cooperate in their efforts to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The fact that the election decisively removed the Tories’ reliance on DUP support at Westminster also eased this path toward progress.

Economic pressures were just as important. London promised significant financial support to help address the multiple healthcare crises in Northern Ireland, and Dublin offered money for large infrastructure projects in the region. However, these commitments were conditional upon the local parties accepting the deal. With nurses and other workers in the region currently engaging in strike action, this put huge pressure on Sinn Féin and the DUP.

This approach triggered claims of blackmail, and exasperation by others that it took “outsiders” to force Northern Ireland’s squabbling parties to face up to their responsibilities. But there has always been an element of blackmail – or, more positively, “incentivisation” – in the way the British and Irish governments have dealt with Northern Ireland – justifiably so in that it has largely worked to deliver a more stable and peaceful society.

As for suggestions that this shows a lack of political maturity in Northern Ireland, well again, yes. Northern Ireland has only had regional democracy since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Thus, of course the practice of democracy in the region is underdeveloped. It has also been hindered by the legacy of 30 years of bloody conflict, and many more decades of discrimination and exclusion, leaving deep divisions.

It was the failure of Britain and Ireland to resolve their own relationships which created this problem, resulting in partition and the birth of Northern Ireland exactly 100 years ago. For decades thereafter, London and Dublin largely ignored the problem, and it was only from the 1980s that they began to properly re-engage in a way that allowed for the subsequent peace process. Unfortunately, however, Brexit once again complicated relations between the two governments – undoubtedly reinforcing the stalemate in Northern Ireland.

The re-engagement of London and Dublin with the region is to be commended, and their continued commitment will be required to face the fresh challenges that Brexit throws up. The draft document they announced last week was entitled “New Decade, New Approach”. One hundred years on from the birth of Northern Ireland, it might even have promised a “New Century, New Approach”. The British and Irish governments, and certainly the local parties, will all need to continue to work hard together to ensure that this new century undoes the divisions and distrust of the last.

Peter John McLoughlin, Lecturer in Politics, Queen’s University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Parliament: You in Danger, Girl

PSA Parliaments Group Convenor Dr Marc Geddes considers the potential impact that the recent Conservative victory may have upon effective parliamentary scrutiny. The blog discusses the current government’s agenda for legislative reform and the changes that may be brought about by a shake-up in the staffing of key parliamentary roles.

On Thursday, 12 December, the public elected MPs to represent them in the UK House of Commons. There are returning and experienced MPs, including one that was originally elected in 1974, as well as 140 new MPs, the youngest of which is 23. While the turnover is not significantly out of line with previous elections, 2019 is significant because of the scale of the Conservatives’ victory. And it is the party’s level of victory, matched with its rhetoric on reforming UK democracy, that could see considerable changes to the future role of Parliament, and most certainly a very different role as compared to what it played 2017-19. Of course, the dust hasn’t settled yet, but I think that Parliament’s centrality in decision-making is in danger.

The first and most obvious difference is the government’s majority of 80, not seen for the Conservatives since the 1980s. How does this affect the House of Commons? Throughout the 2017 legislative period, many votes were on a knife-edge precisely because the government did not have a majority; the government needed every single vote to secure the safe passage of legislation. The larger a government’s majority, the more room for manoeuvre for the prime minister. A majority of more than 80 seats means that even if 35-40 Conservative MPs vote against their own party, the executive would still pass its legislation. As a result, the threat of voting against the government or abstaining has declined. In short: MPs’ leverage in the House of Commons has significantly declined. This will have concrete consequences. One example of this is the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is set to return to the House of Commons on Friday. As Graeme Cowie (from the House of Commons Library) has pointed out, the Bill was drafted with concessions in mind, and included a role for Parliament in scrutinising and approving the future relationship. Without the same level of concessions required, will the government revisit some of these parts of the Bill (citing its electoral success to say that the public want Brexit done, not scrutinised)?

A second difference to 2017-19 will be the role of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. He has promised to be a different kind of Speaker to John Bercow. Bercow’s relationship with the government was known to be particularly poor. He was unafraid to challenge the prime minister and government in order to champion the rights of backbenchers. At this point, it is difficult to tell precisely how Hoyle will behave as Speaker, though there are some interesting hints from his interview with Nick Robinson from early November 2019 – including his comment, for example, that ‘the country elects the government’ (not exactly true, but maybe I’m being pedantic), which should be expected to get their business through the House. He has suggested that parliamentary rules should be cleared up. With a majority government, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Leader of the House grants this wish and, in keeping with tradition of a power-hoarding executive, the likely result will be that those rules will be clarified in the government’s favour.

So, it seems that we are set for a far more predictable legislative period. Dramas in the chamber, late-night votes, the high viewing figures for BBC Parliament… these are likely to recede into the past as predictability reigns. In many ways, Parliament will return to ‘normal’. However, beyond this, there are at least two other things worth mentioning: the impact of the majority on scrutiny and the possibility of reform.

In the House of Commons, select committees are seen as the main mechanism of scrutiny. Typically, they are made up of 11 MPs to examine and scrutinise the policies of government. In the new parliament, it is likely that committees will be made up of six Conservatives, four Labour members and one MP from a smaller party (for a detailed overview of committees and how they work, see the Hansard Society’s handy explainer). Their task will be to keep a close look at what the government is doing. There are particular things to watch out for in the coming months. First, some high-profile and experienced chairs are not returning to their roles: some lost their seats, e.g. Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health Committee and Liaison Committee; others stood down, e.g. Stephen Twigg, chair of the International Development Committee. So, we are likely to see a new crop of chairs, which is also due to take place because other chairs will have reached term limits as set out in Standing Orders (e.g. Sir Bernard Jenkin). Second, the Liaison Committee published a big report on improving the effectiveness of committees before the election was called. The question that now arises: will this reform agenda be pushed forward? My hunch is that it won’t: the Conservatives have been rather happy to avoid media scrutiny during the election, so probably won’t want to empower MPs to enhance parliamentary scrutiny; Wollaston, the chair of the Liaison Committee between 2017 and 2019, has lost her seat; and, the government’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been in a long-running dispute with select committees over a failure to appear before them.

Scrutiny will be vital; it is fundamental to achieving good government. And yet… On 15 December, Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, was asked about fundamental civil service reform, to which he responded that, ‘I think people watching are not interested in the process of government’. While the focus of this exchange was about the civil service, not Parliament, this speaks volumes to me. It suggests that commentators, academics, the media, and parliamentarians, must look very carefully to make that this government is held to account. Because there are strong hints that the government is planning to drive through big changes in how Whitehall is organised, and the reach might very well extend to Westminster, too.

On the morning after the general election, Boris Johnson’s victory speech included a line that ‘Parliament must change’. Meanwhile, tucked away on p.48, the Conservative Party’s manifesto says that ‘we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’. To achieve this, the Conservatives have pledged to introduce a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission within the first year of office to examine how to ‘restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’. In terms of specific pledges that will affect Parliament, the Conservatives have promised to ‘get rid’ of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) as well as promises that will affect elections (keeping first-past-the-post, introducing voter ID, updating constituency boundaries, etc.).

Putting all this together: we will have an emboldened government that is likely to want to see through an historic policy agenda with wide-ranging repercussions, and it can do so with a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, possibly without high levels of scrutiny. Meanwhile, there are hints that political, administrative and constitutional reforms are also on the table. To adapt an iconic line from Ghost (1990): Parliament, you in danger, girl.

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. His most recent book, Dramas at Westminster, looks at select committees in the House of Commons and is available now. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes.


Strengthening interparliamentary relations in the UK: first steps and possible future directions

Strengthening interparliamentary relations in the UK: first steps and possible future directions

Jack Sheldon and Hedydd Phylip discuss potential improvements to interparliamentary relations among the UK’s four legislatures, in the first blog from our Parliaments: Coming of Age? conference.

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