by Gerry Lynch
Tuesday, 1
November 2022
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13:00

Northern Ireland is too divided to function

And the political class knows it
by Gerry Lynch
Credit: Getty

Northern Ireland politicians have failed to break a political impasse triggered by power sharing tensions and lingering issues related to Brexit. This means that an election is now on the cards, but Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has not specified when. Northern Ireland could now be heading for one of its frequent spells of prolonged political deadlock.

According to the Good Friday Agreement, a governing Executive can only take office if a majority of both Irish Nationalist and pro-UK Unionist Assembly members vote for it, which currently means both the DUP and Sinn Féin must take part.

The DUP is refusing to nominate ministers in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Protocol was agreed by the UK and EU to prevent customs checks on Ireland’s land border after Brexit, at the cost of creating intra-UK customs checks across the Irish Sea. Despite warmer mood music between London and Brussels in recent weeks, there is no sign the DUP has shifted at all in its stance, despite this being an issue of both sincere political principle and cardinal importance to the party.

Given that genuine ideological impasse, it is a mystery why there was no Plan B for stalemate. Nobody really wanted an election that would have changed nothing, but everyone hoped for something other than a drift towards political limbo. Perhaps part of the explanation lies in a lack of capacity and expertise in the Northern Ireland Office, which has become a Cinderella department over the last decade. It is too easy, however, to blame the civil servants. Although Northern Ireland was obviously going to be a minefield in the context of Brexit, there have been six Secretaries of State since the Referendum in 2016. Thatcher and Major between them chalked up the same number in eighteen years. One struggles to think of a senior government politician in London who has much grasp of the region’s complexities.

Meanwhile, the ideological gaps between the parties are so genuine that some of Northern Ireland’s most experienced political commentators are speaking in terms of a permanent end to the Assembly. Brexit is the ideological difference most noticed by outsiders, but having a mandatory coalition where the two main parties are, respectively, to the Left of Corbyn and comfortable with the U.S. religious Right presents constant challenges. Deadlock over issues from grammar schools to gay marriage has seen stop-start suspensions of the Executive total a third of the twenty-four years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Nobody can see a way to make power-sharing work effectively but abandoning it is unthinkable, so ennui and depression have settled over the region’s political classes.

Yet, somehow, Northern Ireland always seems to look over the edge of the abyss and step back. The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next April will concentrate minds. But few are expecting progress before that.

Post-Agreement Northern Ireland has often been woefully misgoverned. National Health Service patients are over a thousand times more likely to wait more than two years for treatment than those in England, while hospital IT staff have just had to reconfigure their software to capture data for patients waiting 100 or more hours in emergency departments. More than half of Northern Ireland households heat with oil, which has been hit worse than gas by the energy price spike.

Northern Ireland’s rigid form of intra-communal power-sharing seems to prevent its politicians from dealing with their constituents’ actual problems, yet nobody has so far produced a viable proposal to reform or replace it. Until that happens, expect intermittent deadlock.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

Northern Ireland has been the worst performing UK region by far in terms of economic growth since 1998, despite predictions at that time of an economic “peace dividend”. It has the worst performing public services in the UK, despite (or maybe because of) massive public sector over staffing in the region. Perhaps this is because the largest political party is “to the Left of Corbyn”. Certainly any Blair and Cameron era public service reforms were not implemented in Northern Ireland, secure in the knowledge that funds from UK taxpayers would continue to flow regardless. Yet commentators, including on Unherd, continue to present the failure of Northern Ireland’s useless politicians to form yet another useless Executive as a disaster for its people. It is not. It is the dysfunctional institutions and politics set in stone by the Good Friday Agreement which have been a disaster. They have crowded out the private sector, protected politicians from the consequences of their policy failures by turning elections into sectarian headcounts, and led to a brain drain to Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, particularly amongst Protestant background school leavers for whom the Sinn Fein dominated campuses of Queen University and the University of Ulster are unappealing.

Last edited 1 month ago by Stephen Walshe
james stitt
james stitt
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

spot on!

chris Barton
chris Barton
1 month ago

Not all bad , if the politicians cant do anything it stops them doing anymore damage! Was the best part about T.May as PM years.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago

An Irish “filibuster”… to an American this is pretty comical.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

In NI’s 100 yrs there’s arguably never been a functional, representative Govt. So we shouldn’t have pre-GFA rose tinted view of the past. Dysfunctional Govt has been a constant.
There is something though in how perhaps the backstop of direct rule infantilises too many of the North’s politicians (not all of course as increasingly a ‘middle’ is developing). This of course is not helped by the infantile way Brexit has been imposed on NI, and how it was never properly considered and thought through by those promulgating Leave.
It does feel like the time is approaching for a renegotiation of the GFA, maintaining its key tenets but loosening perhaps the ability to create gridlock via non engagement. It will need v sensitive handling, but the Republic is signalling it is open to the discussion. The question may be whether the British Govt has the bandwidth and calibre of Ministers to step into this now?