By Jack Ainslie
Following three years of deadlock, power sharing has been restored in Northern Ireland.
While there is no question that the restoration of devolution is a significant accomplishment, particularly for the Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith’s reputation, it will be a bumpy path forward. The the in-tray for the Northern Irish Assembly is stuffed full of pressing issues that were neglected whilst the row rumbled on.
When the Assembly reopened several weeks ago, both Arlene Foster (DUP First Minister) and Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Fein, Deputy First Minister) both called for politicians to look towards the future and attempt to get past partisan differences. However, the tumultuous nature of Northern Ireland’s past will leave some unconvinced, and the declined vote share for both of the major parties in the December election will worry the leaders that the row will translate into seat losses in the next Assembly election.
The assembly was set up in 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement. It operates on the basis of power sharing between the two largest parties – typically the Unionist DUP and Republican Sinn Fein – who nominate a candidate to be first minister and deputy.
Many motions in the Assembly require support from a certain percentage of members from both unionist and republican parties. However, the Northern Irish Executive and Assembly collapsed following the resignation of Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness due to Foster’s reaction to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scandal. Sinn Fein then refused to nominate a new deputy finalising the collapse. Under the rules of the Assembly, when one side of the pair resigns, the other office is automatically vacated. Fresh elections in 2017 failed to restore a stable government and further talks broke down. This resulted in Westminster having to take over the governance of Northern Ireland.
The scandal centred around a scheme that was set up in 2012 in order to encourage businesses to use climate-friendly energy sources. Businesses received subsidies if they switched from fossil fuels. The scheme was overseen by Foster, when she was a minister in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. However, the scheme was abused. A huge number of people applied for the scheme and began using it fraudulently by heating buildings that hadn’t been prior to the scheme’s introduction. This resulted in a massive overspend – predicted by some to be £490m.
It was found that over half of the applications to the scheme were fraudulent.
Various allegations were levelled against Foster (FM by the time of the revelations) – these included that she had refused to recognise the failure of the scheme by ignoring a whistleblower who contacted her in 2013 as well as fighting against the closure of the scheme. There were also allegations by her successor as Trade Minister that her advisors had altered documents to remove her name. She denied any wrongdoing. There was a huge amount of anger in Northern Ireland at the cost to the taxpayer.
McGuinness resigned in protest at what he saw as the DUP’s mismanagement of the scandal triggering the constitutional crisis.
How was Power Restored?
Political pressures began to build in Northern Ireland as 2019 came to an end. This included a nurses strike in December. However, as always in politics, power had a role to play. Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith had stated that new elections would need to be held if an agreement could not be made. After both major parties losses in the general election there is no appetite to go the polls.
The deal -named ‘New Decade, New Approach’- was drawn up by Smith and Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney. It was agreed to by the N.I. parties with Arlene Foster stating that ‘overall and on the whole I feel that it’s a fair and balanced deal.’
One of the main complications in talks had been issues surrounding the Irish language. The language is highly politicised and has been associated with the Republican movement. It has been seen a way to distinguish themselves from the UK. However, there are also negative connotations with it’s use. It has been associated with the terrorism of the IRA and thus its’ usage has been opposed by many unionists. The deal proposes to introduce a new framework on culture and identity, with legislation being introduced surrounding the language alongside a commissioner for it. The leader of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald said that Irish language activists should ‘take heart’ from these steps. There were murmurings of discontent amongst the DUP, however there was some comfort for them due to the introduction of an additional commissioner advocating the culture of the Ulster/British traditions.
There are also some constitutional changes to attempt to avoid this situation arising in future. Northern Ireland should also see an increase in it’s budget.
What Issues Now Face Northern Ireland?
As I have already alluded to there are now major challenges facing the country. Firmly atop the agenda is the health service. Waiting times in Northern Ireland are the worst in the whole of the UK – which is no easy task when you peruse the terrible figures in the rest of the country. One of the key parts of the deal is to end the labour dispute with nurses. The nurses walked out due to the pressure on the health system and a shortage of staff – there are over 2800 nursing vacancies in Northern Ireland. Due to the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland in 2018 nurses did not benefit from a pay rise which their counterparts in all other nations of the UK received. £200m will be given to Storming by the UK government to resolve this issue.
Social issues will also dominate the conversation in Northern Ireland. During Stormont’s period of limbo abortion and gay marriage were legalised by Westminster. This has angered the DUP who staunchly oppose both. Arlene Foster has said these laws were “imposed” upon Northern Ireland and the issues should have been left for the Assembly to decide. However, with a political crisis -which many blame Foster for- some would argue these were rights which simply brought Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. She stated that the current abortion laws are now ‘not sustainable’ and must be amended. However, whether anything will change remains to be seen.
Many parties in N.I. are deeply unhappy with the size of the budget being offered. There will be more money given to Northern Ireland but ministers in N.I. have stated it will not cover the expected shortfall in public funding. This financial package -which includes extra money on top of the deal- will be subject to stringent rules surrounding accountability post RHI scandal. In response to the criticism Julian Smith urged members to ‘get on with it’ reminding them that public money had been spent on their wages whilst the assembly was not sitting.
The Union is also the most unstable it has been for sometime. The election of more nationalist MPs than Unionist in the general election was revealing. Does it mean there is growing support for reunification? Or is it simply frustration with the DUP?
There is a long road ahead for the politicians, but citizens will hope that Stormont remains stable even if the doors are only just starting to creek open once again.