And the political class knows it
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.