After the 2 March election, the Northern Ireland settlement needs a rethink

The Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March is likely to be followed by a difficult political negotiation. Alan Whysall argues that it must not be mere political sticking plaster. There is no real alternative to the basic architecture of the institutions, but there are fundamental issues to be dealt with about the way they operate. And that is too important to be left to politicians alone: people in Northern Ireland outside politics need to get involved in setting the agenda.

martin mcguinness poster

Sinn Fein supporters put up a poster of Martin McGuinness in 2011. Photo: Sinn Fein via a CC-BY 2.0 licence

As I outlined in a recent UCL Constitution Unit blogpost, we are likely to be in a profoundly difficult position after the election on 2 March, whatever the result. The recent departure from the Assembly through ill-health of Martin McGuinness, a figure of stature and experience, will make things no easier. There will be at most three weeks to find a basis for the restoration of devolved government – failing which fresh elections would by law be called. More likely, Westminster would conclude that it had to reimpose direct rule: but that would make reaching a settlement much more difficult and protracted. It is probably the last thing that any of the main parties want, but we may be back to games of chicken; and there is a risk of politics running out of control.

There is likely to be an intensive political negotiation whatever happens. Preferably, it would if necessary take place in parallel with a resumed devolved government, with the parties agreeing to stay until perhaps September – however imperfect from the good government point of view. Here are some thoughts about how it should be approached.

First, flawed though its operation has been, the present set of institutions is the best we can hope for in current circumstances – subject to some adjustments to the way it functions.  So long as the electorate continue to vote largely for parties representing one part of the Northern Ireland community or other, if there is not a form of government that engages the energies of both then constructive politics will be impossible. Nationalists are likely to see attempts to replace mandatory coalition with something else, whatever the safeguards offered, as an unacceptable attempt to undermine their influence.

But the system needs to operate in a new political climate if it is to function stably and effectively: for that it needs new attitudes, new ideas, new people. This is not to dismiss the Northern Ireland political class wholesale: they operate in the environment they are given.

But the present politics yield no vision, hence inspire no-one. Politics in Northern Ireland is probably even more of a bubble activity than elsewhere in the western world. In particular it turns young people off. It discourages reflection about the most important long term problems, fixating on the traditional issues. There is an obsession with scandal, because the system is widely seen as corrupt – probably much more than it in fact is. And people deplore the lack of respect among politicians – witness the widespread welcome when Ian Paisley Jr, unlike others in his party, spoke warmly and decently of the ailing Martin McGuinness.

For the post-election process to deal with the underlying problems in the operation of the system, there must be a major contribution from outside politics. There is a need for a thoroughgoing examination and overhaul of the way the system works. The traditional sort of Northern Ireland political negotiation, involving the British and Irish governments and the main political parties alone, leading to a superficial deal that permits the institutions to stumble along for another year or two, will not do any more. It needs to get to the roots of the problems. That needs a significant and continuing contribution from outsiders, to change the nature of the debate.

What might this outside contribution involve? There are precedents. The Make It Work campaign in late 2014 had some impact, creating via the media pressure politicians felt they had to respond to, followed by the conclusion of the Stormont House Agreement. The same, and more, is possible now. If there is a clear articulation of the issues and proposals to get the show soundly back on the road, it could do much to set the agenda for the post-election negotiations. But it has to happen quickly: the agenda must be clear by the time of the election, and capable of being resolved during the negotiation: once a political deal is reached, all leverage is lost.

It’s a crowded agenda for a negotiation. There will be traditional issues, like legacy – which there is no room to cover here, save to say there is a need for honesty. That might perhaps include an acknowledgement that refusing to draw a line under criminal proceedings for acts committed during the Troubles, as most players currently do, will lead to little benefit, and much heartache.

Parity of esteem and equality will feature, because Sinn Féin have given notice of that. Parity of esteem for the British and Irish identities is a key feature of the Good Friday Agreement, the counterpart to the provisions on constitutional status. It is reflected in the design of Agreement’s structures, indeed. That people who identify as Irish do in fact feel more comfortable under such a system may be responsible for the falloff in support for an immediate united Ireland in recent years. But it is a provision that is often forgotten, because it has no concrete manifestation.

It is also an under thought-through concept, and it is another area where honesty and precision in debate would help. Many people play politics with the issue of language. For example many say they support, or oppose, an Irish Language Act: it has become a totemic issue, often discussed without any clarity about what is wanted, or rejected (the Bill of Rights debate is similar). Elaborate provisions like the Welsh language legislation, requiring the public services to operate in Irish, as has recently been favoured by Sinn Féin, risk being costly and disruptive, at a time when many such services are groaning; and could be extremely divisive in the Northern Ireland environment. But measures to give symbolic recognition to and encourage private pursuit of a language that significant numbers of people value, perhaps similar to the Scottish legislation, ought surely to be possible among negotiators who are committed to reconciliation. Nationalists might find ways to reciprocate, not least by calling Northern Ireland by that name, so acknowledging the present constitutional status as it is set out in the Agreements that they subscribe to.

A Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition was set up after an earlier negotiation. Its political rationale was to long-finger these issues, and perhaps as a result its work so far has been little noticed. But finding ways of showing mutual respect, and building the equality that all parties are in principle committed to, is an area where civic society could make a significant contribution. If proposals, at least on principles, could be developed, they might help a political negotiation to be meaningful, and give impetus and direction to the work of the Commission – whose work is potentially very significant in laying the foundations for a less divided society.

The functioning of the institutions needs to be looked at. This is not to open up a distracting debate around their architecture, the essentials of which as set out above seem unavoidable, but rather to look carefully at the way they operate, and where they do not function well. Many now regard the petition of concern procedure, for example, as compromised. Recent revelations about the activities of Special Advisers may suggest a need for clarification of their role in Northern Ireland circumstances. We need to identify the aspects of the system that are in need of reform, and how it should be done.

Standards in public life needs to feature on an agenda too, if the institutions are to regain some credibility. An inquiry into the Renewable Heat Initiative under a retired judge is being set up. But there is now a widespread public perception of Northern Ireland politics being crooked. There is little hard evidence of serious corruption, but many instances of politicians of different parties sailing close to the wind – closer than they might have got away with elsewhere, perhaps – for example in allocation of public funding to favoured groups. The cumulative effect of these scandals has been seriously to sap public confidence – and that scandal perhaps occupies too much public attention. It was striking that the day after the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech last week, with massive implications for Northern Ireland, the predominant subject of media coverage was still the RHI affair. That is a very serious matter, but it cannot monopolise public attention to the exclusion of critical long-term issues.

The traditional Northern Ireland answer to such questions – establish a quango to conduct a review, perhaps to remain as a watchdog, essentially in this case a Northern Ireland Committee on Standards in Public Life – may be the way forward, or there may be something more imaginative. But the issue needs to be addressed convincingly, or will blight future politics

But beyond that we need now to address what’s missing in the way politics operates in Northern Ireland. That includes vision, and a commitment to good government. The devolved institutions lack a sense of a purpose that might bind them together, and perhaps even engage public enthusiasm. We have had Programmes for Government, but they have been technocratic exercises – very elaborate in the most recent case. These may have a value in imparting coherence to the administration, but they have skirted all the difficult issues, and lacked political traction and public impact.

Northern Ireland has really serious problems, of continuing division, of economic underperformance, of struggling public services. Many parts of the political system and the media are open to the reproach that they are not sufficiently interested in good government, preferring the easy political hits. New and challenging ideas are not cherished. We need to deal with this, to set about working through difficult issues, in ways that are honest about the costs and sacrifices necessary to achieve a better outcome.

From this could emerge a vision worthy of the name, that might ultimately succeed in building a sense of hope and confidence about the future of Northern Ireland. What the elements of it might be requires a new sort of debate, and in particular one that draws in younger people, who seem particularly disenchanted with the current public discourse in Northern Ireland. I suggested elsewhere that one element of that might be a commitment over time to a programme that leads to us being recognised across the world as leader in reconciliation and tolerance – we are some way there, but there is much more to do, some of which may be painful. The political negotiation, anyway, could lay the foundations for developing a vision.

One part of the way to better government is to encourage more involvement in public policy making from outside. It is characteristic of the way that we expect the public sector to provide in Northern Ireland that we don’t have a strong apparatus of independent think tanks. These are a significant feature of the way government operates in London, Dublin and elsewhere, and we arguably need new thinking more than most. I have been working on this issue with people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. A future blog post will outline those ideas, to be set out in a fuller paper. The Brexit issues could benefit from an approach of this sort very soon.

Because, finally, a negotiation will have to be about Brexit. This is potentially the biggest issue for the future of both parts of Ireland for many years, one that could break the Good Friday agreement with no alternative foundation for settlement anywhere in sight. But we have had little debate about it, and little leadership from the Executive. This failing is the more frustrating because there is the goodwill towards the peace process that might permit special arrangements for Northern Ireland, if it could get its act together. There is a need to work out the options for the future, debate them and compromise around them. This will be painful, but an incoherent debate risks making politics still more chaotic and ultimately unstable.

Civil society has done much to feed the debate so far, including work by people at Queen’s University, the Centre the Cross-Border Studies, and the NGO EUDebate NI. This work has to go on, and to be supported: it is unlikely that the Executive is going to provide coherence here, or that the parties left their own devices have the resources, or perhaps the inclination to work constructively towards compromise.

So, after the election: we need an informed and thorough review of the way the settlement operates, preferably without any break in the continuity of devolved government. The parties around the table, from Northern Ireland and the two governments, cannot be relied on to focus or to lead on those issues. We need people outside politics to contribute ideas, essentially offer an agenda for the negotiation. The governments should encourage this: they know they can’t bear the burden they have in the past. They should do so urgently.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. It first appeared at the Constitution Unit blog.

alan whysallAlan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, where he is undertaking further work on Northern Ireland.

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